The Man, The Trail, and The Wilderness Ideal
by Don Weiss
It is one of the truths of camping that the sun always rises behind the high point of a ridge to the east if you are waiting for it to come up and dry your tent. When I had set up my tent I had put on the fly because I expected rain. But the rain was meagre. During the night, condensation coated the inside of the fly, and I spread it out to dry on a bush. There was sun 100 yards to either side of me for many minutes before I finally got the sun I needed. Even so, the tent was still damp when I packed and left.
It was only a mile down the trail to the start of the Bighorn Plateau, named after a long-vanished herd of Bighorn Sheep. They had a spacious home, several square miles of grassy meadows, with jagged peaks in all directions. To the north, the Kings-Kern Divide, which I had crossed via Forester Pass. To the west, the Great Western Divide. To the south, the Kaweah Range. And to the east, Whitney.
Whitney doesn’t get much respect as a mountain. It’s generally seen from the east, where it appears merely as the highest, jagged point of the high escarpment looming over the Owens Valley. It’s actually hard to see from the foothills as you approach.
It also suffers from ease of access. Anyone can climb Whitney since the trail up the east side was improved in 1904. Even before then, the route up the south and southwest sides was merely a long walk. Muir failed in his first attempt to climb it, but only because he was following Clarence King’s directions, and King had climbed Mt. Langley by mistake. Muir climbed Langley. When he reached the top he saw Whitney a few miles north and decided to climb it too since it was clearly higher. But he had failed to bring food or fuel and only got as far as the pinnacle now known as Mt. Muir. “There I had to dance all night to keep from freezing, and was feeble and starving next morning. I had to turn back without reaching the top. Was exhausted ere I reached horse and camp and food.”
He retreated to Independence, in the Owens Valley, rested a day, then pushed up what is now known as The Mountaineer’s Route, becoming the first person to ascend Whitney from the east. He climbed Whitney again the following summer with two companions, writing an account of their climb for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. This time he pioneered yet another route:
“On my first ascent I pushed direct to the summit up the north flank, but the memories of steep slopes of ice and snow over which I had to pick my way … made me determine that no one would ever be led by me through the same dangers. I therefore led around the north base of the mountain to the westward. … Higher, higher we climbed with muscles in excellent poise, the landscape becoming more and more glorious as the wild alps rose in the tranquil sky.”
On the Bighorn Plateau, I was in the midst of that view Muir had enjoyed, climbing Whitney’s northwest slope. Wild peaks rose in a tranquil sky as I turned about, watching Big Fat Hairy Marmots on rocks. The moon, just past full, was setting over the Great Western Divide. For the first time in the Sierra, I was reminded of Zanskar, a broad valley in the Himalaya where I had trekked for many weeks some years before. The Sierra doesn’t suffer in the comparison.
To the east, Whitney actually loomed over this grand vista. I’d never imagined how impressive Whitney could look. I’ve never seen a good picture from this angle. It looked like an enormous, truncated pyramid. Rather than seeming only a few hundred feet higher than Mt. Langley, Mt. Muir, and Mt. Russell–all nearby, all over 14,000 feet–it seemed to dwarf them, a monarch of mountains.
I crossed the plateau in a flow of energy and good feelings, forded three creeks and started up to cross an 11,000 foot saddle leading to Sandy Meadow and Crabtree Meadows.
Partway up, I met another solo backpacker coming down. We stopped and talked, not about bears, but about storms. A few clouds were starting to build over the Great Western Divide. I told him of sitting out the storm in my tent at Vidette Meadows.
“Yeah, I lucked out, too. I was camped at Crabtree, and the hail didn’t start till 3:30. But that was nothing. Once I was going over Junction Pass during a lull in one of these storms. I pointed to my hiking buddy and my finger started to tingle and glow! My buddy said, `Don’t you point that thing at me!’ But you be careful if you’re on Whitney tomorrow. During that storm three days ago some guy got hit by lightning. They had to take him off in a helicopter.”
The saddle, as high as the passes further north on the trail, seemed to be a low point in a massive lateral moraine. What a glacier that must have been, sweeping out from Whitney and flowing down to meet the glacier that was carving the upper Kern Canyon! Muir contrasted volcanic Shasta with granitic Whitney by saying, “Shasta was built upward by fire, Whitney was built downward by ice.” The glaciers have vanished from this southern end of the Sierra, as they are now vanishing from the north.
I had lunch in a thick forest of Lodgepole Pine and Mountain Hemlock. My mouth was parched by the dry air of 11,000 feet and the exertion of walking hard and fast. I was feeling strong, and my pack finally seemed light. Of course, it was lighter than it had been since the beginning of my trip, but that was only part of it.
I was stronger, mentally and physically. Two hundred miles of walking, six high passes, moonrise, storm, and all those non-existent bears had combined to strengthen me inside and out. I felt at last like I really belonged here, like this was part of my natural environment.
Also, my trip was nearly over. I was ten miles from the summit of Whitney. I would spend this night at Crabtree Meadows, the next on Whitney, weather permitting, then drop down to Trail Camp to meet my wife. We would climb Whitney together and then head home.
Crabtree Meadows was deserted when I got there at 1:30. It was a dry meadow, with most of the once-grassy areas showing the effects of the thousands of hikers and horses that had camped there. Off to the south was a bizarre, modernistic weather station. Crabtree is a sampling spot where the Sierra snowpack is measured each winter and spring to predict runoff for the following summer. This tells the water and power people how much water and hydroelectric power they will have available. Traditionally, crews would ski in, drive a core sampler into the snow to measure depth and water content, and then ski out. Sometimes, now, they fly in by helicopter. The Wilderness Act allows such snow sampling to continue when necessary, but increasingly these surveys are being done by machine, with the results transmitted by automatic radio. Eventually it is hoped the survey sites within Wilderness Areas will be correlated to other places, beyond the Wilderness. Then these towers can be removed.
There was a rickety outhouse at the edge of the meadow, but it was reserved for the ranger. Campers still have to go off and squat behind a tree on the slopes above the meadow– paleolithic waste disposal.
My tent dried out quickly, and I set it up at the edge of some meager grass, just beyond the drip-line of a tree. Later I moved it under the tree. Re-vegetation is slow at Crabtree, and all tents are supposed to stay off the grass.
By three o’clock I had a few neighbors. The closest one was doing a slightly longer variant of the JMT. He had started fifty miles north of Yosemite. He asked to borrow my guidebook to check out the remainder of the route.
“I left mine sitting on a rock while I set up my tent and turned around just in time to see a marmot dragging it down a hole. Probably smelled of granola from the granola bag I was keeping it in.” He had a solar battery charger strapped to the top of his frame pack to charge up the batteries for his flashlight. He had a dirty bandage on his left hand. He cut it badly on a rock when he fell, crossing a stream.
I went over to the little ranger’s cabin and found that the ranger was in. His name was George, and he had been a ranger here for ten years, following ten years as a Yosemite backcountry ranger. Like most backcountry rangers, he was a seasonal employee, eternally stuck at GS-5 step 1 classification and pay, despite his college degree, specialized training, and years of experience. He’s part of a movement to improve rangers’ pay and working conditions by forming an organization called The National Alliance of Rangers and Firefighters. We talked a bit about these political problems, but mostly we talked about mountains, bears, campers, storms, and all the other standard backpacker topics. We were joined for awhile by a man who does volunteer work for Sequoia/Kings Canyon, one of the many who tried to help the park survive despite the eviscerated budgets of the Reagan/Bush years. He had a video camera, to get the I.D. numbers of hotshot pilots buzzing Whitney.
“Can’t you just report the type of plane, direction and time?” I asked. George shook his head.
“No, the base commanders will only take disciplinary action if we can identify a specific aircraft. I was talking with General Yeager one day and one of these hotshots practically skimmed the summit. He identified the aircraft all right, but we couldn’t make out the I.D. at that speed so nothing happened. Some of the base commanders will ground a pilot for breaking the 2,000 feet above ground level rule, but some won’t even do that, even with the I.D. That’s why we want the pictures.” I asked George if General Yeager came around often.
“You bet. He’s probably the best fisherman in these parts. I figure he’s caught more four pound or better Golden Trout than anyone. He may have caught a record some time or other, but he either eats them or throws them back. He’s not in it for the trophies. And he never gets lost.”
“Do many fishermen get lost?” I wondered.
“Hell yes. One year on Thanksgiving three guys were drinking in a bar in Fresno and decided to come up here and go fishing. A storm blew in that night. I figure we may find their remains some day. People get lost all the time. Or just stranded by a combination of the weather and their own stupidity.”
“You mean like Jane Fonda?” I asked.
“How did you hear about that?” I told him it was in the paper just before I started my trip. “I wasn’t on duty that night, or I might have been the one who found her. As it was, she wasn’t really very lost, and she knew how not to get in real trouble. But when her companions realized she wasn’t with them any longer and it was too dark for them to look for her, one of them walked to the Wolverton ranger station and said, ‘Jane Fonda’s lost. You need to go look for her.’ And of course the ranger on duty just said, ‘Sure she is.’ But they expected that reaction. They brought her wallet along as proof. So Bob called Ted on the radio and said, ‘Jane Fonda’s lost, set up a search party,’ and Ted said, of course, ‘Oh come on, let me sleep.’ But they found her right away. She knew, as soon as she was lost, to find a safe place and wait to be found. She seems to know the Sierra pretty well. She was over by Panther Mountain, not far from the CIA wreck.”
“The WHAT?” I asked.
The volunteer answered. “You never heard about that? It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the mountains. Well, you know, there are hundreds of planes down all over the Sierra. Mostly private planes. Some are at the bottom of lakes, and we may never get them out. Some have been carted out on muleback. Some are lost. But this one is right up there on Panther Peak, near the Wolverton Ski Area.
“It was in 1959. A privately chartered cargo plane was being flown east from L.A. by two ex-Air Force pilots and they crashed on the mountain. The next day, before the rangers even got there, the FBI and the CIA arrived and declared the whole area off-limits. They spent days up there, and probably took out the bodies and whatever cargo they didn’t want anybody to find. But you can still see the engine and a good bit of the fuselage. The rest is either gone or scattered in fragments. I’ve thought sometimes about going up there with a Geiger counter, just to check it out.”
I asked George if anybody ever dies in the Sierra except drunken fishermen, rock climbers and careless pilots.
“Not many. Last year we found a hiker at the base of the Whitney East Face. He must have been looking over the edge and got picked up by a gust of wind. We found him well away from the Face, pretty messed up.
“And you probably heard about a couple of hikers who died in a Labor Day storm about 12 years ago?” I nodded. It was front page news across the country.
“My friend Bill was here that week. He had about 18 hikers in this little room, drying them all at the wood stove. Apparently two of the ones who died walked by in the rain. Bill got in trouble because one of the people he was drying out was the daughter of an editor of the Washington Post. She wrote a story about how he could have saved the two who walked by. The next day the boss flew out in a helicopter to check it all out. As if it was Bill’s job to stand out on the trail in the rain and make sure nobody was being stupid enough to keep walking in a major storm. You gotta hope that people have some smarts when they come up here.”
I smiled and said, “Never assume people have brains. I met a Boy Scout, supposedly practically an Eagle Scout, who got lost on a day hike and walked away from his camp, and didn’t have a map, compass, extra clothes, extra food, matches–nothing.” He laughed.
“Yeah, that’s like the hippie couple that came through here one summer. They were walking to Nevada, thought they’d live off the land as they went. Luckily, I have a small cache of food here. Sometimes, at the end of a trip, someone will leave me their extra trail mix or oatmeal. I save it for when somebody loses their food to a bear or something.”
“Do many people actually lose their food to bear? Or is it mostly people get woken up and bothered?”
“I don’t think bears actually get much food these days, not since we started putting out the bear boxes. You know, I was a backcountry ranger at Little Yosemite Valley almost 20 years ago when my supervisor started putting up the cables. They work okay, but they’re hard on the nylon rope most people use, and sometimes the bear gets the food anyway. We tried bear poles for awhile, but they’re hard to use, especially if you have heavy food bags, and a couple of bears learned to climb them. The boxes work much better, but next year you’ll see something new. Two-foot lengths of plastic pipe that you carry with you and lock your food in. The bears can’t get their teeth around them and they can’t get a good hold to tear them up. If we can finally keep bears from ever getting any human food, maybe they’ll leave people alone.”
“What about chemical disincentives, or electric shock, or mountain lion scent?”
“We’ve tried everything, one time or another. You can teach a specific bear to stay away from a specific food source, but not all bears for all food sources. They’re just too smart, too adaptable, and like people food too much. As one of my buddies says, `Never underestimate an animal you can teach to ride a bicycle.'”
“So you think bears are less of a problem now than they used to be?”
“Yeah, at least, less than they were five to seven years ago. There have always been some problems with bears in the mountains. But it was the bear feeding shows like we used to have in Yosemite and Sequoia that really messed things up. We taught bears to like our food, then we stopped letting them have it. When they got pushy, we relocated the worst bears to the backcountry, where they had babies and taught them to like people food. It’ll take years to really wean them away from our stuff. Meanwhile, I hope you always hang your food.”
“Mostly,” I said, exaggerating. “But I haven’t seen a bear this trip. In fact, I’ve only ever seen two in the backcountry, one at Lower Cathedral Lake and one, years ago, at the top of Nevada Falls. That one was just a yearling, but I heard he later had to be killed because he used to go up behind hikers on the trail and grab their packs.”
“I know the one you mean,” George said, “But he never actually got quite that bad. What he did was he would make a mock charge and of course, most people wouldn’t know he wouldn’t actually attack, so they would either throw him something or else drop their packs and run. Since he was already in the backcountry there wasn’t anyplace to re-locate him to, so we put him to sleep.”
“How many bears get relocated?”
“Not many, not anymore. We can only re-locate within the park boundaries. They did a study at Yosemite and found that more than a third of the bears they relocated come back, usually in a few days, since Yosemite isn’t all that big. We’ve only relocated one family group, a mother and cubs, in the last two or three years. People just have to learn to be smarter than the bears, even though that’s a bit hard for some people. Bears are just part of the mountains, one of the natural dangers. If there weren’t anything at all dangerous here, it would be less fun for a lot of people, less of a challenge.”
“Like storms?” I asked. It had clouded up in the afternoon but the would-be storm dissipated without producing any rain.
“Exactly. You know, every year, somebody gets hit by lightning because they stay on the top of Whitney in a storm. I mean, it’s fantastic up there, and you’re pretty safe in the hut, but we still haven’t gotten around to grounding it. We plan to do it the next time we call in the helicopter to unload the toilet. The enclosure is all blown away by the wind anyway. It’s just basically a toilet seat on top of the mountain with this rotten oil drum in a hole underneath now.”
“I heard somebody got hit by lightning three days ago and had to be helicoptered out.” George shook his head.
“No. Not this year. Not yet.”
It was dinner time. He showed me a spring nearby where he gets his water. I felt like it was a sign that he accepted me, reinforcing the feeling I had that morning of being at home in the mountains. While I cooked and ate some noodles and cheese, I watched a chipmunk dancing around the rocks drawn up in a circle about my fire. He bounced equally over rocks, wood, and my camera bag. He made no distinction between the natural parts of his environment and man-made intrusions. His behavior was like that of my friends’ children in the mountains. They related to their surroundings in a forest the same way they did at home or on a city street. Just as a bear will sniff and then bite any object he finds, to see if it might be good to eat, the chipmunk thought all non-living objects larger than his tail were simply potential hiding places for food. For children, as for a young gorilla or chimp, everything was a potential toy, or the foundation of a new game.
This lack of distinction between natural and un-natural objects is in complete contrast to the treatment of “structures” as intrusions unless they are of certain, limited classes of objects–bridges, trails, snow survey towers, etc. A ranger cabin is okay, a mountain hut is not, unless it was built on Muir Pass in 1930.
In The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx points out the symbolism seen in or attached to trains and other spawn of civilization in natural settings. Sometimes, along the trail, I became almost angry at the inconsistencies, almost irrationalities, of what is or is not allowed.
I came to realize that inconsistency is inevitable. The Sierra is used by so many people, in so many ways, for such different ends, that unless you had a Mountain Czar or an over-riding religious-based mountain philosophy,
[*note, end of 23 is missing]