Hwy 50 / Echo Lake to Hwy 108 / Sonora Pass (73.9 PCT miles)
Day 76 started out crisp and clear. We left the cabin, crossed Hwy 50, and passed the Echo Summit trailhead before starting the long climb towards Little Round Top. As we gained altitude along the granite and tree-lined slopes, the waning full moon kept a constant vigil over us. This classic Sierra terrain was a welcome sight and helped make the climb easier. Atop the plateau we found broad forested slopes and meadows with views of Lake Tahoe from rocky prominences. We could smell and see smoke in the air and were surprised to learn that it was coming up all the way from the Owens River fire east of 395 near Mammoth. The weather was sunny but windy and the air became more smoky as the day went on and we continued south towards Carson Pass.
Fun Fact: In 1968, Echo Summit was the home of the high-altitude training center for Team USA and the site of the US Olympic Track and Field trials.
After reaching Mokelumne Wilderness, the landscape changed. It was akin to entering a smoky jazz club, starting right off with the sharp dark angles of Elephants Back. The mountain looked like a black hulk in the orange-hued smoke-filtered sunlight, yet as you got closer it was actually covered in yellows, greens and reds from the plants growing on its western face. We then crossed over to its eastern face and it was like being on a whole different planet. The mountain dropped several thousand feet to a valley far below with a slope of dark brown to black talus. The trail snaked down through what initially appeared to be barren rock but as we walked we passed several green and thriving wildflower plants, including the first blooming pennyroyal we've seen in weeks. As we dropped into the upper reaches of the valley we were surrounded by dark-colored peaks, very different from the white granitic mountains we walked through in the Desolation Wilderness and near Echo Summit just the day before. On the climb up Forestdale Divide and towards The Nipple where differences began to mulitply. The slope opposite us was pale grey, lavender and white. Crossing over to the stark blocky peak of The Nipple, the talus fields were deep purples and greens. Lichens growing on the rock were a contrasting bright orange or vibrant fluorescent greens. We were buffeted by strong winds on the otherwise bare slope as we climbed above deep green Lost Lakes nestled in their treeless dark rocky basin, surrounded by every color of the rainbow. The following day, these riffs and variations on the more classic Sierra mountain terrain continued and even multiplied. We hiked around Raymond and Reynolds Peaks, both of which were impossibly craggy up top along their summit ridges while lower down had fantastical, smoothed and bulbous stacks of rock features just calling to be explored and climbed. They were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and as we got closer, I could see that they were conglomerates of purple, green, grey rock and sand that had been sculpted by wind and weather. The jazz band that had been playing somewhere within the boundaries of its mountainous musical piece was now jamming away with reckless abandon far beyond the standard realm for its encore set. It was simply incredible and we couldn't walk 10 steps before stopping to exclaim at yet another angle.
From our initial climbed into the forest and meadows up on the Tahoe Rim, there was a strong and persistent wind. It helped keep us cool in the hot sun and we didn't really think too much about it beyond noting that it was terrible for fires. By that evening, when we camped at Lily Pad Lake it had lost much of its intensity and was more a gentle cool breeze. The next morning it started up again, and I did start to wonder if a front was moving in. Over the course of the Day 77, clouds started to build in the sky and initially just added to the surreal landscape of rainbow-hued moutains. By mid-day, it did look like we might get some rain and was much darker to the south. As the day wore on the sky reverted to a more benign and calm appearance. In the late afternoon the clouds built up once more, especially in the direction we were headed, and the wind had a cold edge to it. We decided to pitch the tent that night with the rainfly for both rain prevention and wind protection. Sure enough, in the wee hours of the morning, there was a brief rainshower, lasting only a few minutes. It was definitely a little odd, as there was still filtered moonlight throughout the little storm. If rain while the sun is shining is a sunshower, then this must have been a moonshower. The morning of Day 78 as it became light there were a few innocent clouds to the north, but to the south where we were heading the sky was a dense and ominously grey with many peaks obscured by rain.
We started out and kept and eye on the sky in front of us. The storm front was fast-moving and it was difficult to tell if it would clear out or persist for the day (or even longer). By mid-morning, we decided to put on rain gear as we had reached the edge of the dark grey sky with thick mist in the air and could feel some errant rain drops on the wind. Little did we know how many costume changes we would end up making over the rest of that day. We did have a little rain, but over the next few hours and several miles we looked up to a sky that was dark grey one minute, swirling in mist another, and patchy blue with fast-moving white clouds the next. We climbed and dropped over several saddles and then descended into a long canyon holding the East Fork of the Carson River. Through the course of the day we would stop to change clothing layers several timess. Rain pants off because we were getting too hot on the climb, rain jacket switched out for windbreaker, changing what thermal layers we had on due to temperature, pulling out our umbrellas because of a short downpour. By our lunch break we had already had 7 costume changes! We made the final push to the pass at the headwall of the canyon, and at the top stopped for our penultimate costume change. We were surprised to find that for the first time all day the sky was clear-ish to the south and east but behind us to the north it was dark, ominous, and obviously raining. As we stood there, clouds filled in on every direction. Anticipating an exposed traverse along the shoulder of dark red Sonora Peak and no more significant climbing, we changed back to our heavier rain jackets and added a thermal layer each. Not 5 minutes had passed before the weather changed again. A howling wind came up, and we were pelted with hail, snow and a cold driving rain. Looking towards the final saddle we could see sheets of rain coming across the low point in misty waves. Since that was the direction we were headed, and the sky was now completely dark around us, we took shelter near some stunted and windswept Whitebark pines, to pull on our rain pants and waterproof gloves (change number 10!) and headed over that saddle to start our descent.
We were happy to have added that last layer because the wind and rain did not cease. As we continued the long descending traverse along Sonora Peak, we had fabulous views of its brown, red and purple features glistening from the rain. It was a stark contrast to the surrounding grey clouds and continued driving sleet and rain. Apparently, that mountain jazz band had one more crazy encore for us. For the most part, we were snug and mostly dry in our layers. Our packs were waterproof, parts of us were chilly but not too cold if we kept moving, and our s and socks eventually got wet as the rain continued. We were buoyed knowing that we'd be sleeping indoors with friends of friends (warm showers! laundry!) and thankful not to be pitching a tent in this weather. However, we had to focus our footing. While these slopes were gorgeous, the trail tread was red clay and it built up on the soles of our shoes making the already wet trail quite slippery. We reached the trailhead picnic area wet and cold but otherwise without incident, and huddled under the overhang of the outhouse roof (the only dry-ish place) to eat the last of our day's snacks while waiting. Not long after we arrived, Vicky drove up with their two energetic Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Charlotte and Halifax. We happily clambered into their SUV, looking forward to hot showers, warm company, and new friends.
At our Day 77 campsite by a small creek in Disaster Basin, we were surprised to find that we were sharing the large clearing in open forest with so many people. We had arrived by headlamp just after dark, and passed 2 tents on the near side of the creek and then another 4 on the far side near where we ultimately settled. While making dinner, the group of 4 invited us to their campfire. They were four guys out for their longest hike ever (12 days from Echo Summit to Yosemite). Their enthusiasm was unbridled and they were excited to hear about our thru-hike. We entertained several questions and shared our enthusiasm for such a long wilderness stint. It was fun to see that they had caught the bug and were trying to figure out how to extend the magic, either on this trip on another hike in the future. The fire was already dying down when we arrived and once we finished our dinners we bid them goodnight as it was well after hiker midnight and we were pretty exhausted. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I was happily thinking of what a great adventure this has been and how very glad I am that Huckleberry and I made the huge decision to embark on it.