Saturday, November 20, 2010

Backpacking in the Inyo with the fam

Shortly after my impromptu Yosemite trip, I embarked on my scheduled family backpacking trip. Sticking with this Summer's theme of "Going to California", we had decided to go to the Inyo National Forest / Ansel Adams Wilderness. I had heard about this spot from Anthony Jones and his Anthony's Audio Journal podcast. If you haven't stumbled upon this, I highly recommend it.




Anthony has several postings describing a couple of trips he's been on to the Ansel Adams and spoke very highly of the trek from Agnew Meadows to Thousand Island Lake. He draws a detailed mental picture which drove me to want to see it and share it with my family. So, I planned it out, used my frequent flier miles and got myself, my beautiful wife and two eldest children ready to go.

Our trip began early one Tuesday morning flying from D/FW to Reno, NV. In Reno, we would rent a car and drive to the Reno REI to stock up on fuel and a little extra food. We grabbed some fast food and started the 3 hour drive from Reno to Mammoth Lakes, CA. We had to make a couple of stops along the way, and arrived in Mammoth Lakes around 3:30pm. Permits are required in the Inyo, so we stopped at the ranger station in Mammoth Lakes to pick up our permit and the required bear canister. From there, we drove the short drive down Minaret Road to the Agnew Meadows campground where we would stay the first night. We set up our front country campsite and headed back into Mammoth Lakes for dinner.

On the way back into town, we passed a big sign that read "Fault Line". Being from Texas and having never seen a fault line, we decided to stop. This is a nice little area with an up close look into an actual fault. The crack is probably at least 20 feet deep and about 4 feet wide. If you're ever in the area, it's worth a stop.

For dinner, we decided to stop in the famed "Burgers" restaurant. It's a quaint family-owned business on Minaret Road, near the ski area. Anthony had mentioned this in his podcast and I had read other postings of people who highly recommended it. The food is typical burger-joint-style cuisine, but is mighty tasty and would keep us warm tonight as temps were expected to be in the 30's. After dinner, we headed back to camp to organize our gear for the next morning's hike.

Back at camp, we started a fire with whatever firewood we could find to help us stay warm while we unpacked the gear from the flight and repacked it for the next 3 days in the backcountry. With four of us, for 3 days, we were going to be carrying around 20 pounds of food. My wife and I decided to each carry a bear canister, so we divided the food up. I took most of the heavy food and carried our larger Bear Vault BV500 and my wife carried the lighter food in the rented Garcia bear canister.

The menu for the three days consisted of:
  • breakfasts - pancakes, Mountain House breakfast wraps and oatmeal
  • lunches - chicken or tuna pouches, cheese, pb&j and tortillas
  • dinners - Mountain House Beef Stew, Backpacker's Pantry Shepherd's Pie and Mountain House Grilled Chicken and Mashed Potatoes
  • snacks - PowerBars, Clif z-Bars, raisins and Clif Shot Roks
That first night in the front country, the temps, as expected, dropped to around freezing. This was a good test for everyone's new gear such as my wife's Outdoor Research Aria down hoodie and her new MontBell Super Stretch Down Hugger sleeping bag. My wife is a cold sleeper and while I think she was a bit warmer, she still got cold, and she was wearing about every piece of gear she brought. My daughter got pretty cold as well. She was using my wife's old The North Face Cat's Meow sleeping bag and I gave her my MontBell UL Down Inner Jacket. My son and I were warm as usual. My son uses a Kelty Light Year synthetic bag and I use an REI Mojave down bag. We all sleep on the Big Agnes Air Core pads, while I have opted to upgrade a bit to the Insulated Air Core. I highly recommend the Insulated Air Core, more so for the feel and reduced noise than any sort of added insulative value.

In the morning, I was the first up, teeming with anticipation of the trip. All of my planning was culminating in this beautiful crisp morning. I started a small fire to warm everyone up when they arose and began making the first breakfast, Pancakes. This is a great breakfast for the front country or backcountry. I use the Bisquick (add water only type) mix and measure out the amount I need for the trip into a sturdy gallon Ziploc bag. I carry Syrup in small eye dropper bottles and you could probably bring butter as well if you wanted. I also like to bring dried blueberries to make blueberry pancakes for those who so desire. In camp, I simply measure the amount of water I need and use my hands to mix or knead the dough. Using my lightweight frying pan over my SnowPeak Giga stove, I heat the pan up. I snip one of the bottom corners of the Ziploc bag and pour a small pancake sized amount into the pan. I carry a small lightweight spatula to flip 'em and then serve 'em up.

After breakfast, we broke camp down and packed our gear up. Our main gear consists of:
  • Tents - (1) REI Half-Dome 2HC 2-person/3-season tent and (1) Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 2-person/3-season tent
  • Bags - (Dad) REI Mojave +15 Down bag, (Mom) MontBell Super Stretch Down Hugger #2 +25, (Brandon) Kelty Light Year XP 20 Synthetic, (Lauren) The North Face Cat's Meow +20 Synthetic
  • Pads - (Dad) Big Agnes Insulated Air Core 3/4 length, (Everyone Else) Big Agnes Air core full length
  • Packs - (Dad) REI Flash 65, (Mom) Osprey Aura 65, (Brandon and Lauren) Gregory Jade 50
  • Water filtration - Katadyn Hiker Pro



Everyone would carry their own clothes and water, which we would filter using the Katadyn Hiker Pro water filter. I carried the Half Dome tent and the Bear Vault bear canister. My total weight was somewhere around 35 pounds. My wife carried the Garcia bear canister and her total weight would be somewhere around 25 pounds. Brandon carried the Big Agnes tent and his total weight was around 18 pounds. Lauren was left to carry just her clothes totaling around 11 pounds. All in all, we did a pretty good job of packing and dividing up the gear.

We finally made it to the trailhead at around 9:30am where we would leave the car and load our scented items into one of the parking lot's provided bear boxes. The plan was to hike north about 3 miles, going past Olaine Lake to the outlet of Shadow Lake, then turn west heading up the Shadow Lake drainage. We would stop at Shadow Lake for lunch and then continue up Shadow Creek to Ediza Lake where we would camp for the first night in the backcountry. The next day, we would backtrack about 3 miles to join up with the John Muir Trail and head north over to Garnet Lake and then to Thousand Island Lake to camp the second night in the backcountry. On the third day, we would hike south along the high trail back to the Agnew Meadows trailhead. It was very ambitious, but I felt it was do-able.

The first part of the trail leaving Agnew Meadows is very flat and dusty from the many pack trains. About 1.8 miles in, you arrive at Olaine lake. There's no access to the lake, but there's one flat area near the south bank which was a great place to stop for a quick snack. Crossing a foot bridge at the base of the Shadow Lake drainage, you start the ascent to Shadow Lake. Rising around 700 vertical feet in about 1 mile, you pass some beautiful cascading falls and eventually arrive at Shadow Lake, see the picture below. The trail leading up is very well maintained and has a couple of large sweeping switchbacks. The anticipation grows as you near the top. You will see Mammoth Mountain and the towering ski lifts in the southern distance. It is a gorgeous view up and down the canyon.


After lunch, we began the 4 mile hike to Ediza Lake. Overall, this part of the trail was fairly level, only gaining 500 or 600 feet. Most of the elevation gain is saved for the last mile or so. Just past Shadow Lake, you cross the famed John Muir Trail (JMT). We will come back and hook up with this trail the next day. Heading onward and upward, we followed the calm waters of Shadow Creek, stopping occasionally to splash some water on our faces and cool off in the shade. We passed many California Conservation Corps (CCC) workers doing trail maintenance. I made sure to give them my thanks for all their hard work and give 'em a hearty handshake.

We crossed two small footbridges and then a large drift of snow still left in the shade at over 9,000 feet and Ediza Lake came into full view. With the sun hitting the water, the ripples looked like thousands of twinkling lights. The Minarets and Mt. Ritter loom large over Ediza and provide a wonderful backdrop to this natural beauty.


Camping is limited to the northeast shore of Ediza. There is a trail that leads you along the west side of the lake. You must make several small water crossings. I can imagine in June and July, the snow melt might make this a bit treacherous. We had very little difficulty getting across, but it's probably 1 mile around to the other side. Ambitious groups navigated the east shore, which is a large boulder field, but a much shorter route. There are many campsites to choose from, but it is not easy finding them. The terrain is pretty steep and finding level ground can be a challenge. We found a wonderful spot that was shielded from the winds on all sides. While we didn't have a direct view of the lake, we simply crawled up on one of our four walls and we had a bird's eye view of the lake in all directions. Here's a shot of me at sunrise on the second day.


On day 2, the plan was to hike back down the Shadow Creek drainage to the John Muir Trail (JMT) and head North to Garnet Lake. Everyone was up shortly after sunrise. Breakfast was a Mountain House Wraps Breakfast Skillet. Eggs, red/green peppers, potatoes and sausage all mixed together. After breakfast, we broke camp and were back on the trail.

The hike down to the JMT was quick and the day was warming quickly. We took a break at an area near the creek where we could all rinse off in the cool water. It felt great to get some of the sweat and grime off. The hike up the JMT to Garnet Lake is a steady climb. There's no real steep inclines, but it is all uphill. The last section is a set of switchbacks up a talus field. The payoff is well worth it. Here's a panoramic of Garnet Lake from atop the pass.


We then hiked down and around the east end of the lake to a foot bridge. Linda and the kids stayed at the bridge while I hiked around to the north side of the lake to find us a camping spot. Garnet is a very popular place and the north side is where most of the spots are, so finding a good campsite is a bit of work. I found a great site with good views of the lake and Banner Peak. I dropped my pack to save the spot and went back to get the rest of the family.

We made our way back to where I had marked my spot and set up camp. Everyone was pretty wiped out by the hike, so we all laid down and tried to nap a bit. Around 5pm, I started filtering water and preparing dinner, Shepherds Pie. After dinner, we took a few pics and everyone was asleep by probably 9pm.

Part of the allure of Garnet Lake for photographers is Banner Peak. The sunrise casts a very striking, deep orange color on Banner Peak for only about 5-10 minutes and then it's gone. Here is a shot that I took at sunrise. This has not been altered at all.


I got Linda up to see this and we sat and watched with amazement. It is truly moments like these that inspire me to get out more and see some of God's glory in the wilderness.

Later that morning, I got everyone up and we had some oatmeal for breakfast and packed everything up for our hike out. Getting from Garnet Lake back to Agnew Meadows would prove to be a bit challenging. The path heading east is difficult to find from the footbridge and requires some boulder hopping and route finding. Once you drop off the boulders, the path becomes well marked. It is possible that we took the wrong way, but we made it nonetheless.

Dropping around 700 vertical feet to the Middle Fork San Joaquin River below Garnet was very uneventful and pretty easy. Crossing the river proved to be a bit more of a challenge. Unlike the crossings at Thousand Island Lake and Shadow Lake, there is no footbridge. So, we sought to find a place to cross. We began to follow a trail along the west side of the river heading south towards Shadow Lake. It was an easy hike for about 1 mile, the began to get a bit more challenging climbing over rocks and downed trees, but we were finding it difficult to locate a safe place to cross. Eventually, the trail dead ended at the river. Fortunately, it was a very easy crossing, although we all got a bit wet. The one issue with this was that there was no trail leading us back onto the main River Trail which would take us back to Agnew Meadows.

This is where having a compass and a map come in handy. I was able to find a few land marks and roughly knew how far we had come. I estimated where we were and what direction we needed to head to intersect the trail. At this point, though, my family was doubting me. Within 5 minutes, we hit the River Trail and we were on our way.

I knew at some point on the River Trail, we were going to hit a dry section and we were running low on water. The family was tired and ready to get back to the car and eat a big burger in town. Instead of stopping to filter a liter of water for us, we chose to push on. Looking back on it now, as the guide, I should have forced everyone to sit while I filtered at least a liter of water. But, I let the family's desire to move on outweigh my common sense.

The daytime temps were pushing into the mid-70's and the sun made it feel hot. Plus, the last section from Olaine Lake to Agnew Meadows is very dry, dusty and exposed. We all completely ran out of water with about 1 mile to go. With tired legs, it was difficult to keep the troops moving. We found whatever shade we could and would stop for short spells. We arrived back at the Agnew Meadows campground and drank from the first water spigot we found. Later, my daughter would suffer from mild dehydration, getting sick in the parking lot of the restaurant.

In the end, everyone was fine and we had a big meal of hamburgers and french fries, iced tea and milk shakes at Burgerz in Mammoth. We relaxed in the cool restaurant for a good hour. We cleaned whatever grime we could off in the sink and freshened up a bit for the 3 hour drive back to Reno. I was glad to hear the response from the family when I asked if they would do it again. I got a resounding "YES". Music to my ears.

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