October 14, 2018
Shepherd Lake area, Elevation 10,300 ft
This morning it was pitch dark when Hurlgoat started rummaging around in the tent and eventually emerged after letting the air out of his mattress. What? Why is he up so early? I had set my alarm for 6:10 am and we had talked about getting on trail by 7:30 am, so I was still wanting more sleep. Shocking, I know.
I looked at my watch and it was 5:30 am. Dang it, it IS time to get up. He roused me and coerced me into an upright position by bringing the stove and my food bag over to the tent vestibule so I could sit inside the tent, inside my sleeping bag and have coffee and breakfast. I got out to go pee, checked the thermometer, it read 21 F and then I ducked right back inside.
We did really good and got on trail by 7:05 am this morning just as the sunlight was hitting and warming up the East facing walls of Conness Peak. The ridge of the peak juts out to the East quite far, and we would be climbing this today. The sun strikes the entire wall in the morning and it glows so beautifully. A perfectly still reflection of land on water on sky made me begin this day with a still, peaceful mind.
I was totally bundled up in my down puffy for the first couple miles, but we did start climbing right away and soon we were in the sun, following a lovely trail alongside a cascade and we even ran into some day hikers. It was really funny because the man actually recognized Hurlgoat from Youtube! We chatted with them for a few minutes, they were out to climb Conness Peak.
As I had mentioned yesterday, today was purportedly going to be quite the challenging day, especially climbing up Sky Pilot Col, and even more especially climbing DOWN Sky Pilot Col. I’m not going to lie, I had some fear in me about all this. Of course, all I can do is embrace it, and “see what happens”. Knowing that today was going to be a challenge, and it was going to be difficult, scary at times and very slow going through lots and lots of steep talus and scree, I also had no choice but to set my mind for it. I decided last night before going to bed that today would go really well, that I would rise to the occasion.
For the most part this helped. For one, when I was forced to wake up in the dark and freezing cold, I embraced it instead of the usual extended lingering. For another, I felt clear in my head all day, I felt like my navigation was on point all morning and I understood where we were headed, and what to expect. We did really well for the first half of the day, making our way up the long climb to the East Ridge of Conness Peak. This ridge, was named East Conness Pass by Doubletap in his notes, as it truly behaves like any other pass.
We agreed this ridge was definitely pass material, even though Roper does not call it a pass. It involved several hundred feet of very steep climbing, several shelves that seemed like false summits, and then at what we thought was the “top” we had to turn and start climbing further up big slabs of granite, and scramble up even higher, then traverse across a contour line with big boulders and slabs, before finally descending.
The descent was mostly pleasant, although at one point we found ourselves face to face with a very steep drop off filled with ice and snow banks in a gully of talus that we thought we were supposed to walk down. We stood on the edge of this thing, and stared down it. I was trying to embrace the challenge, but when I looked at Hurlgoat and saw the look of dread on his face, I knew what we needed to do.
We decided there must be another way, it simply was not safe. We may have gone a little out of the way, but we definitely found our way down without a hitch, and soon we were walking down the North arm of this massive mountain and descending to the Conness Lakes basin.
Our goal for lunch was to make it to Secret Lake, which is basically a little tarn at the base of the climb to Sky Pilot Col. We had yet another several hundred foot climb to get to Secret Lake, but this time it was on a trail, so we knocked it out pretty swiftly. When we arrived at the pristine little tarn, it was just about 1:00 pm, we had averaged 1 mph all morning and had accomplished about 6 miles. So far, we were pleased with our progress.
Lunch was lovely, with the sun warming my back, we ate bagels toasted with butter and cheese, chips, chocolate and coffee. The usual. We collected water from the pristine tarn and hydrated both physically and visually. Filtering this water was probably negligible, but we did it as a matter of formality. I squatted by the banks of the water’s edge, mesmerized by the twinkling of light dancing over the surface, wind making erratic ripples.
Once refreshed, we were gearing up now for the toughest part of the day. Sky Pilot Col. From where we were, it was a mere .5 miles to the Col (as the Bird Crows, as Hurlgoat says) and 700 feet of elevations gain. The trick was, however, that it was all scree and talus the entire way. We were feeling good though and we planned on it taking us around 2 hours to reach the top. We also planned on it taking us about 3 hours to descend the 1,300 feet on the North side, down to Shepherd Lake. Well, let’s see what happens. We hoped we could make it to a good campsite before dark.
Setting off for the pass, we first aimed for the white talus, then red talus and finally made a hard left and up the gray slate scree slope we climbed. That was the first 300 ft and we actually accomplished this fairly easily.
Next would be the giant field of boulders the size of cars and furniture. We decided to head straight up the middle of that, and honestly, it was no big deal. Having finished that, we were then faced with the final 400 ft ascent, up a very loose scree slope.
We basically made our way straight up the middle, or slightly to the left, aiming for a snow patch, right at the top of the pass. As we climbed the views of the lake basin below became more and more stunning. So Stunning, in fact. These are the moments you just absorb like a sponge, take as many photos as you can, but since you have to keep moving, they are so fleeting. Everything goes by in a blur. If only I could freeze these moments in time….
We made our way up the scree, and honestly, the reference materials we had made it sound WAY worse than it actually was. We were both surprised how quickly and not with monumental amounts of effort it was. Are we getting stronger? Maybe we lucked out and found the path of least resistance. We made it to the top of Sky Pilot Col by 3:15 pm, only 45 minutes after we’d departed Secret Lake. This made us both very happy, because it gave us more time to handle the sketchy descent.
The descent was F’d up. It was every bit as nasty as our reference materials led us to believe. At least I was prepared for this because had it been a surprise, I don’t know what I would have done to get myself mentally through it. First of all, there is still quite a lot of fresh snow everywhere, on top of tons of extremely loose dirt, rock and talus, and then there are also big snow fields that are basically human size sun cups, frozen over from last year, and then dusted with anywhere from and inch to a foot of fresh powder.
First we had to descend a very precipitous, loose scree and talus slope that was also dusted in snow. I put my microspikes on immediately and aimed to use the snow as traction as much as possible. Hurlgoat took more of the scree route and slid down quite a lot, making me so nervous. I was very slow, but I was able to find somewhat secure footing by kicking steps and making my way down one little foot at a time.
We both made it to the first snow field and had fun walking in that, as the top powder was about 2 feet deep and soft when you punched through the crust. We plowed through that happily and then it was back to climbing, now up a dirt and scree slope, again very precarious, to a ridge that we would then follow. This was an extremely steep climb and at times I was literally grabbing fruitlessly at dirt, and loose rocks with my hands for something to hold on to, but literally there was nothing.
Once up on this ridge, we were then faced with a seemingly endless slope of talus, snow fields, more talus and boulders, scree and the like. It just seemed to go on forever, but the saving grace was we could actually see, from up there, our destination of Shepherd Lake, and the trees beyond where we hope to camp tonight. It was just a matter of finding the path of safe travel down, down and more down, navigating the rocks and snow.
We crossed two more snow fields, and many more fields of large talus, as well as one very very intense, steep scree slope that somehow, I don’t know how, I made it across. There were times when I just felt stuck, like there was nowhere for me to go. Not only that, I could not even turn around safely and go back. These moments downright suck and I feel so anagry at the SHR for being this way. Is this really necessary??
I witnessed Hurlgoat take a steep slide down one of scree slopes and it sent a jolt of adrenaline through my veins. He even admitted it was pretty sketchy, so I went up and around another way. This proved initially to be a better decision, but then I got myself into a pretty steep and sticky situation, trying to make my way down a steep scree and talus slope covered in snow, using my trekking poles to stop the momentum.
There was hardly anything to hold me up, and I felt like the weight of my pack was pushing me down and I was just sliding inch by inch with the pull of gravity. Talk about not having control. I proceeded to sit right down on my butt and started to take off my pack. I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea, because it wasn’t.
Oh my goodness this was even scarier, because then I was holding onto my pack awkwardly, with it’s weight dragging me now instead of pushing me. You can’t win. Hurlgoat was able to make his way over and take my pack, my trekking poles, and give me his hand on the slide down. Thank God for his help, it made me feel so much better and I was so over this whole thing at that point, I just wanted to be done with this kind of terrain. It wasn’t fun.
But we weren’t done. Not by a longshot. By now the time was around 5:40 pm. We were still ahead of schedule, but we still had quite a long way to the lake. We continuted over some larger boulder fields, and one last snow field. The snow was my favorite part, because I felt like I had some traction and even if I slipped, which I did, I wasn’t going anywhere dangerous. The leftover ice and subsequent sun cups from last year proved to be fun to walk on and we started singing a little song “suncups…over boulders….makes it scary”…to the tune of John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders”. At least I had a laugh for a minute! I think the worst is over now….
Finally, finally, we made it to some friendlier terrain that contained a less steep grade, some grasses and back to the white granite rock that your shoes stick to and don’t go slipping when you step on them. Hallelujah!
We picked up the pace now and I can’t even tell you how relieved I was to be DONE with all of that. My attention drew to my feet because I realized now they were complely soaking wet and numb from all the snow. The wind had picked up considerably, so it was getting downright cold and I could feel it creeping it’s way through the mesh of my shoes. We were both totally bundled up in our puffy’s, hats, buffs, gloves, all the warm things, the wind intensified.
We reached Shepherd lake and got to bask in the glory of alpenglow for a few minutes as we skirted the Western shore of the lake. The immense dark wall of rock that lines it’s East shore is impressive to say the least, and as it rises up a thousand feet or more in a straight scree slope, the tops of the ridge were glowing orange from the setting sun. To the South we were looking at granitic craggy peaks reminiscent of Whitney and the sliver of the moon was floating just next to them.
All the sights of this entire afternoon were stunning, but up until reaching the lake, you truly could focus on nothing else but the terrain you were balancing on. The wind was something fierce, but I felt pressed to stop and be still for a few moments, taking it all in, looking back from where we just came, gawking at the immense black wall across the lake, the landscape of stillness reflecting the stillness inside of me, finally.
We followed the lake to it’s outlet and spotted some trees to the East that we hoped would break the wind enough for us to find a place to sleep for the night. It was now 6:40 pm and we were losing daylight quickly. Good thing we made good time today! We scouted around for about 20 minutes and found the one and only “flattisih” tent site, protected by stunted Whitebark Pines, and we set up there. It was getting colder and colder, 30 F PLUS bad windchill, so we decided eating outside was out of the question. It’s tough sharing this little tent for anything besides sleeping, but we’d done it before, we could do it again. From changing into sleep clothes to cooking dinner in the vestibule, it’s very tight quarters, but we manage.
I get into my sleeping bag immediately and put on dry socks, as I cannot feel my toes. I curl up in a ball and try to get warm, while Hurlgoat boils me some water for tea. I place the hot cup inside my sleeping bag, between my legs, between my feet, on top of my toes, everywhere, and it is amazing. Since we are sharing a stove, he begins to cook his dinner while I sip my tea and massage my feet. After a while, I start to feel the toes come back to life. We listen to some mellow folk music and snuggle together while dinner is cooking and outside the wind is absolutely HOWLING. We got a good spot, even with all that wind, we are protected. It’s been a long ass day, nearly 12 hours and we only made 9 miles. We climbed 3,000 ft and descended 2,700 feet in that 9 miles. It doesn’t seem like much but what a difference terrain makes!
It’s 10:20 pm now, Hurlgoat has been snoring for the last 40 minutes as I write. My fingertips are getting really cold, the wind still howls above, I am sleepy. Tomorrow we have two passes to cross, Stanton and Horse Creek. Stanton sounds intense, and very scary. I was reading about it and I don’t really want to think about it before bed. I think my strategy for today worked though, setting my ind in a positive way, so I will have to do the same for tomorrow, and see what happens.