Saturday, September 7, 2019

Backpacking Great Basin National Park: Bagging the pyramid

The sound of crashing rockfall woke me up from inside my tent on the northwest shore of Baker Lake. 

It was a loud, fast, and trembling rumble. For a split second, I worried if whatever cascading boulders would reach our camp, but I was half-asleep still. Compared to twelve hours prior, I felt much better health-wise. Last night's battle with altitude sickness honestly scared the living shit out of me. Again, more details on that to arrive in a future blog post. Opening my eyes and cautiously moving around in my sleeping bag, the mix of extensive rest, water, and a handful of painkillers was the magical combination I had desperately needed.
I crawled out of our tent and stretched, Feeling more alert and conscious, I was finally able to actually admire our temporary forested abode in the belly of the rocky amphitheater above. We had pitched our tents no less than fifteen feet from the mirror-like surface Baker Lake, with water so unimaginably clear, transparent enough to see every single stone beneath. The water was brisk too, dipping my hand in it and washing it over my face to wake up.
Drew had gotten up at dawn, capturing the morning light illuminating the lake and the glow cast on the surrounding members of the Snake Range. I grabbed my camera and mindfully began hiking around the perimeter of the lake. Looking south, I could see Pyramid Peak, the mountain the four of us were hoped to bag later this afternoon, and on the northern edge of Baker Lake, I could stare straight upwards and gawk at the sheer marvel of the amphitheater. Patches of still-lingering snow covered some of the rock.
Back at camp, Ben had started boiling water for breakfast and coffee while Chadd was playing around with his 360-degree camera. The temperature was in the high 40s and slowly rising as the sun made its climb. Ben filled my mug with hot coffee, I grabbed my guidebook, and sat down to study today's route, sipping from my steaming mug all while taking in this backcountry bliss. Our plan for this wonderful Saturday was to pack up our camp at Baker Lake, reconnect with the trail which requires navigation via stacked carins, ascend the saddle that spans between Baker and Johnson Lakes, summit nearby Pyramid Peak if the weather allows, then descend down the saddle to Johnson Lake where we'd set up camp for night two.
After a breakfast of rehydrated eggs and peppers, we laid low for a while. Ben relaxed in his hammock, overlooking Baker Lake, playing a few notes on his harmonica while the others gradually tore-down camp. I was so, so, so pumped to get on the trail and get my adrenaline fix. Ever since departing the trailhead yesterday, I was just amazed over how spectacular this national park was. I never, ever would have expected something so wild to be in Nevada. Maybe that's because my assumption of Nevada was that there was Las Vegas (gross) and that's it. Great Basin National Park had it all: thick forests, dry harsh desert, snowy mountain tops. Everything. I felt so grateful for this silent, alpine wilderness.
We started tearing down camp, repacking our packs, and topping off our Nalgenes with filtered water from the lake. To catch the trail, we had to follow the east shoreline of Baker Lake back to where we first emerged from woods on Friday evening. I turned around and took one final look at mesmerizing Baker Lake, where we pitched camp last night, and the commanding amphitheater. The established trail soon faded and I took lead, keeping an eye for hopeful tiny carins in the distance and for a brief period, tiny red metal squares attached to trees. Navigating via carins for the most part is pretty straightforward- just look for one tiny stack of rocks, then find the next somewhere on the near horizon. If you're lucky, there will be another carin waiting to guide you the right way, other times you just have to check your compass or topography map and wing it.
Departing from the last clumps of Engelmann spruce, we began the exhausting slog up an open rocky drainage to the top of the saddle that spanned Baker Peak and 11,926ft Pyramid Peak. This was hands-down definitely the hardest physically-demanding part of our backpacking trip. While it wasn't treacherously steep, it was a long gradual approach, nearly 1,000ft push into higher and higher elevation. Over my left shoulder, Pyramid Peak's northeast aspect rising up into an ideal blue sky we had been gifted above.
We'd set a goal for a few hundred feet, pause for a water break and moment of acclimation, and look behind both at our progress and the expansive landscape hiding behind our backs. Dotted specs of spruce and pine sat below unnamed mountains and massive dark shadows from clouds quickly blowing by. Wild Nevada as far as the eyes could see. It had gotten breezier but the sun still shined strong. I was still feeling the lingering effects of last night's altitude sickness, trying to not get frustrated with my own pace. The approach to the ridge sloped more aggressively and our straight path changed to switchbacks.
Checking my Garmin GPS's altimeter registered that we had passed the 11,000ft mark and the ridgeline appeared almost within reach. Ben and Drew went ahead towards our midday destination while Chadd and I paused for a prolonged break. We both shared our agreed appreciation and straight admiration for where we were. Tiring, oh hell yes, but the approach up the side of the saddle was a stunning opportunity to see just how beautiful this planet is that we live on. I looked up with camera and could see Ben and Drew, nearing the ridgeline where nothing else more could be seen.
Encouraging each other as we took our final steps onto level ground. It was somewhat of a relief but more importantly triumphant, all four of us had made it to the top of a dreamy saddle in Nevada's Snake Range. Panoramic views stretched for miles in literally every direction. Gazing southeast some 5,000 feet below us, the last row of forested peaks came to halt as the dry, empty basin linking Nevada and Utah began.
Adjusting our vantage point, we could see Johnson Lake too, its clearish turquoise still surface reflecting in the sun. The views were simply striking, polarizing, and humbling. I had been anticipating this backpacking trip for months and had daydreamed about standing in that exact same spot, atop the rocky saddle with Pyramid Peak over my right shoulder. It was moments like this, that I strive to collect in my life.
Chadd came up from behind, cresting the saddle next, his classic external-frame Jansport pack swaying as he stepped his way towards me. Raising his trekking poles high, he was just as stoked as I was. This was only his second gig like this ever in the wilderness. The prior summer both Chadd and Ben both spent a week backpacking through Montana's Glacier National Park, a place I still need to get to. Chadd's one of my closest best friends and I've known him nearly my entire life. This was the first time we had gone backpacking together and I'm so grateful for that. 
Ben dropped his pack and continued to hike along the narrow ridge south towards Johnson Peak. Meanwhile, I pulled the topo map out of the top pocket of my pack, unfolded it and tried to a clearer idea of where we were with the surrounding terrain. There wasn't exactly a set path marked by distinguishable cairns down from the top of the saddle to Johnson Lake, our next immediate destination, so I got up and walked a bit closer to the edge and looked south. I could make out what appeared to be a rather sketch, faint footpath that carved its way to the shore of Johnson Lake.
We kept checking the sky, scanning for any quick-moving dark clouds or distant rumbles of thunder. Being that we were very exposed above treeline, any sight of hazardous conditions would be dangerous. Judging the horizon, we decided to give it a go and make our ascent to the top of Pyramid Peak, under the mutual understanding that if we hear any thunder we'd have to descend immediately. The initial approach wasn't too bad, but as we scrambled more in elevation, the pitch became steeper and slippery. Cobbling over rust-colored boulders, at one point, I stared at the top. The other two were up there somewhere.
As Chadd and I passed Drew and Ben on our way up, they alerted us that there's definitely a false summit, meaning you may think you're close at the top but there's more after that haha. Looking down to my left I could make out Baker Lake below the amphitheater's walls and the clump of pines where we camped the night before. Chadd and I kept scrambling, passing displays of otherworldly lichen attached to some of the rocks. Ten minutes later we were at the top of Pyramid Peak.
"We did it man," Chadd enthusiastically said to me, both of us joking with each other how we each made it up with bum knees. The summit of Pyramid Peak was somewhat flat, maybe twenty feet in diameter, with a small waist-high shelter built by those who had explored Pyramid Peak before us. The wind was loud, flapping against the hood of my North Face jacket. Turning around to face west, the direction we had our backs to ascending up the mountain, I spotted the dark Schell Creek Range on the horizon. 
I looked around for a summit register and found one tucked inside a tiny mason jar, but neither one of us had a pen. Chadd and I made our way back down to the saddle to meet Ben and Drew, who had been watching an intimidating, almost black cloud sweep behind Pyramid Peak as we descended and saying "Get down guys." I could see the front moving in too, looking over my shoulder as we continued our descent. Chadd and I reunited with Ben and Drew and the four of us grabbed our packs from the spot we decided to store them should it rain while scrambling up Pyramid Peak. We all looked at the summit and praised how we luckily we had timed our ascent, stating that would have been straight terrifying to be caught in an afternoon storm up there.
I pulled out my topo map to take another quick check and walked a few steps to the left towards the ridge to look down at Johnson Lake. Next, we hiked towards the southern face of the saddle and found the narrow switchback that'd we precariously follow. Leaving the saddle at a few ticks over 11,300ft, we took it cautiously slow descending some 600 feet to the grassy flats near Johnson Lake. As we had been warned by a ranger at Great Basin's visitor center and a duo of other hikers the prior day, the path was slippery with loose scree. Hiking poles were mandatory to keep our pack weights in-check. It was such an adrenaline rush albeit a somewhat technical descent that at times was a tad nerve-racking. 
Much of the pleasant Nevada blue sky had faded behind clouds but an occasional burst of sunlight pierced through. I trailed behind and pulled out my camera, trying to snap a few pictures of just how steep the descent to Johnson Lake was. I felt as if I kept turning around and looking behind at the saddle's towering southern flank, awestruck. Ben led with Drew, Chadd, and I following. When the switchback lost some of its steepness, Chadd stopped to pull out his camera and point it at eager yellow arrowleaf balsamroot flowers that rose from the ground.
Per my topo map, we soon passed remnants of an old mine tungsten mine somewhere higher on the southwest slope to our right. A rusty steel cable with part of aerial tram and clunky heavy chain mysteriously still swayed in the Nevada air, leading to the shaft's out-of-sight entrance. We tried following the cable upwards to where it was attached but it was too distant to determine. Continuing towards the base of Johnson Lake, we found more artifacts including pieces of an engine, metal siding, and piping. Most of tungsten mine was wiped away by an avalanche in the 1930s.
A vibrant blue sky and the late afternoon's sun returned as we approached Johnson Lake's grassy lush shorelines. In relief, we unstrapped our packs and Ben voluntarily began boiling water for dinner and tea. I drank a generous swig of water from my Nalgene bottle and hiked around Johnson Lake with my camera. Compared to Baker Lake where we stayed at the end of our first day, Johnson Lake was smaller but also vastly clearer. From every corner of the shoreline, you could essentially see the stony bottom. The surface was glassy too, reflecting Pyramid Peak to the north and neighboring. Pale limbs and trunks from trees, likely blown down from avalanches clogged the southern shore. From the eastern shore of Johnson Lake, I could look up and really acknowledge how steep our descent from the saddle was a few hours earlier. The saddle appearing almost totally vertical. I bent down and splashed some water on my face. It was so refreshing. 
I returned to where we had dropped our packs and Ben filled our dehydrated Mountain House meal pouches with piping hot water. On the menu for me was Italian pepper steak with rice and tomatoes, beef stew for Drew, chicken fajita for Chadd, and pasta primavera for Ben. We were starving. Grabbing our mugs of tea, we happily did a "cheers" in celebration of a successful day. Originally we had considered the possibility of pressing-on for a couple of miles to a supposed clearing in the woods near a creek at a lower altitude. But we had grown fond and super content with Johnson Lake's heavenly tranquility and chose to spend our second night here at a cozy 10,750 feet.
As the evening went on, temperatures were dropping as the sun disappeared. The wind had also made a return. Ben predicted that rough weather might be on the way and when dinner was done, we scouted out a secluded place to pitch our tents away from Johnson Lake in the bushy pines. Around 8pm, as soon as we had set up our tents, it started pouring. We waited it out for probably 30 minutes, sheltered inside our tents and chatting loudly with each other through the polyester walls. 
In a brief break from the rain, I was able to fill and filter a few water bottles with water from Johnson Lake. Stepping out from Eureka Taron2 tent, it was chilly and the sky was a moody gray. I could hear loud turbulent gusts spooling up on Pyramid Peak. Crawling back into the tent, I discovered pools of water had formed underneath us, between the tent floor and the tarp. Chadd and Ben emerged to help Drew and I move our tent to higher ground and fix the flimsy tarp. We also sourced as many larger rocks as we could to place around the borders of our vestibules, in a bid to block any wind. Later, another wall of hard rain and wind hit our camp again but we kept dry, warm, and relaxed. I wrote in my travel journal by headlamp, then went to bed. 

Cheers,
Robby