In mid-August of 2009, I finally made plans to return to the incomparable, achingly beautiful, Kings-Kern Divide region. It has always been my absolute favorite location in the Sierra, and it had been far too many years since my last visit.
Attempting to get out ahead of a subtropical moisture fetch reaching into the Southern Sierra from Mexico, my intent was to cross the Divide into the Upper Kern by way of East Canyon and return via Vidette Meadow in an ersatz loop, a week's long outing. Having finally given up carrying large format cameras into the wilds on anything longer than a day's journey, I proceeded up the Kings Canyon from Roads End (Cedar Grove) in blazing summer sun, following the burbling Bubbs Creek to Junction Meadow, carrying a still all too heavy fifty pound pack. By the time I had covered 5 miles, my faithful hiking companions - quarter sized blisters on the heels of both feet - had caught up with me. Even with compromised feet, I had made good time to my first camp, but it was becoming ever doubtful as to the wisdom of keeping to my original plan. A chatty ranger, noticing the tripod strapped to the outside of my pack, remarked that I must be up to some pretty serious photography. He informed me he was one of three rangers patrolling the Bubbs Creek corridor. Really, 3? Things had certainly changed.
The following morning I discovered a deer mouse, drowned in my water bucket, and immediately began to wonder at its portent on the upcoming ford of Bubbs Creek. Late season, mid-calf high and cold, it turned out to be trivial. The previous day's promising cumulonimbus had given way to unbroken stratus and flat lighting as I made my way up to East Lake. Having stopped for lunch, I proceeded up the remains of an unmaintained path to Lake Reflection, in a steady drizzle. I set up a hasty camp, still hoping for better afternoon light. It rained lightly for the remainder of the day, only letting up enough to allow me to prepare a quick evening supper. I retired to my tent just as the rain began in earnest. Unusual for the Sierra, it rained fairly hard all night, finally clearing at first light. After a solid 12 hours of holing up out of the rain, I was more than eager to get out of my nylon coffin and do some serious shooting.
What greeted me was quite an astounding atmospheric drama unfolding on the rugged 13,000 foot-plus Kings-Kern Divide above the lake - one I had experienced previously only in the winter. Well, it had in fact snowed lightly to a thousand feet above the lake. I exhausted the early morning hours, running around trying all conceivable angles until the sun had risen high enough to burn off the residual moisture, drying the granite ledges, and flattening contrast. Looking down East Canyon, I watched in awe as the clouds lifted and parted, do-si-doing in and out of the Vidette Spur. The last forecast being three days old, it was looking as if the storm might be moving on.
As morning mists gave way to unshielded blue skies, I headed up towards Milly's Foot Pass to scout my intended route. Soon, clouds began roiling once again as I climbed the steep talus above the lake. I was still 1500 feet below the pass when I began to be pelted with large, juicy raindrops. Rebuffed, I made my way back down to camp, where I remained en tent for the rest of the day. By then, it was pretty clear that continuing my trip in any sustained upwards direction, cross-country with full pack, was going to be a painfully footsore ordeal, and so I decided to try to find the old path up to Lucy's the following day.
Recovering at camp, it was sobering to comprehend that almost a century and a half previously, the four members of the Sierra Nevada California State Geological Survey had encountered this very terrain, totally unexplored and unknown. Without so much as a tent, and only woolen blankets to fend off mosquitoes and the cold, they endured freezing temperatures and snowstorms throughout the month of June. As the year was 1864, they were getting but infrequent reports, by rare horse re-supply, of the progress of the American Civil War. Once attaining the summit of what was assumed to be the crest of the Sierra, they were stunned to realize that many more higher ridges lay to the east, over a great canyon, from which many still higher peaks rose. That 13,570 foot peak, and its massif lying immediately west of East Lake, was named for the expedition's chief, William Henry Brewer. Two of the explorers, Clarence King and Dick Cotter, with only a couple of days food, blankets to fend off night's chill, and no mountaineering gear of any kind, crossed knife-edged passes and bivouacked above 12,000 feet so that they could get to "the top of California". Cutting steps with a Bowie knife into the perpetual snow cornice of what is now thought to be Longley Pass, and crossing the Kings-Kern Divide, not once, but twice south of Lake Reflection - out and back from Brewer's base camp, they failed only a few hundred vertical feet short of being the first men to stand at the summit of California. It turned out though that they were actually on 14,018 foot Mount Tyndall, a few miles north of what later became Mount Whitney. King named the higher peak to the south, Mount Grant, in honor of the Union General. (see "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" by Clarence King). And there I sat - with sore feet...
Decamping, I bid a tentative and fond adieu to the majestic Lake Reflection, searching in vain for the unmaintained path to Harrison Pass from which a vertiginous detour to Lucy's could be made. Defeated, yet resigned to the predicament of dealing with the torn flesh and bruised tendons of my feet, I headed back down to East Lake in bright rain-washed sunshine. Twenty miles from the nearest road, I hadn't seen another soul in 48 hours. Well, not quite. At the highest point of my ascent towards Milly's Foot Pass, as I sat on a boulder in the middle of a talus field, a pair of Clark's Nutcrackers came swooping in from above, banking off at the last moment, less than ten feet from my perch. I can't say why exactly, but I had the feeling it was some kind of salutation, as if to say, "Oh, it's you, good to see you made it back."
I was set on going back to Junction Meadow and then on to the crest via Vidette Meadow, but photography interceded at the brightly lit East Lake, where I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening shooting. As has often been the case, the beauty of the scenery and great light overwhelmed my trail progress reducing it to a scant 2 miles - and that following a day's layover. Though colder than anticipated, the added bonus of camping at East Lake was that of building and enjoying the rarest of back country fires in many, many years.
It was pretty clear the following morning that with only a few days left to the fulfillment of other obligations, I was going to have to return to Cedar Grove. Not so bad, as the skies had become monotonously clear, denying my best artistic visualizations. A long descent down the canyon, the rugged trail shouldering East Creek, still vibrant wild flowers of twenty varieties kissing my bare legs through a deeply rutted path more watercourse than trail, brought me once again to Junction Meadow. A long, gentle downhill hike past armies of backpackers newly entering the wilderness delivered me into the head of the Kings Canyon. The last rays of the days sun danced off the granite walls as a waxing moon played hide-and-go-seek through the guarding rock parapets. Then, suddenly, through the forest of cedars and gnats, pavement.