Barney & Crown Lakes
September 23-26 2001
In September of last year we thought it would be alot of fun if we all got together and went on a backpack trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mike had been to Hoover Wilderness before and he knew of a great trail starting from the Twin Lakes campground heading up into the wilderness. On Wednesday we packed up our gear and drove up I-395 from Southern California. We made pretty good time except for the road construction going on in Adelanto. About noon we pulled over for a much needed bathroom break at the Mt. Whitney Visitors Center and Mike told us all about how he had climbed Whitney a few years before and pointed it out to us across the road
After a brief stop we continued up toward the High Sierras stopping briefly at Mammoth Mountain and Shaver Lake. About 4:30 PM we exited the I-395 and drove up toward Twin Lakes and our first night camping. As we were nearing the campground we saw a cinnamon colored bear sitting along side the road. We slowed down the truck and got to within10 yards of the bear before he scampered up the embankment and into the woods. That was the first bear I had seen in the wild and it was quite a thrill. About 200 yards later we pulled up to the Twin Lakes Campground and checked in. We asked the camp host if they were having bear trouble and he said since cut-backs on funding they were no longer relocating troublesome bears and one in paticular had been raiding the campground. He said a cinnamon colored juvenile bear was hitting the trashcans and was making false charges at campers. The camp host said he shot it in the butt with a bean bag shotgun earlier in the week and the bear had not been back since.
We set up camp and I put up my tarp between to convieniently located trees. I laid out my sleeping bag on a plastic groundsheet and fired up the camp stove for dinner. I fried up some bannock and toasted it beside the fire. I served it with grape and rasberry preserves with melted butter. While eating, Pat dropped a huge blob of jelly on his shirt and we all laughed telling him that bear was going to love him tonight. We hit the sack and dropped off to sleep listening to the sounds of the forrest and dreaming about our trip.
AAbout 5:00AM I awoke to the call of nature and stared at the ceiling of my tarp. I heard crunching sounds of foot steps just outside my tarp and thought, oh boy!, a raccoon or possom. I could tell it was walking around my tarp and was coming toward the foot end of my sleeping bag. I was all zipped up snug and cozy in my mummy bag so I just tilted my head up and was shocked to see the cinnamon bear stick his whole head and shoulders inside my tarp. I heard his feet crinkling on the plastic groundsheet as he lowered his head and sniffed my feet. It's a really bad feeling knowing your about to be attacked by a bear and both your hands are trapped inside a mummy bag. At that point I decided I needed help but didn't want to startle the bear. I yelled, "Aaaah Mike" and the bear quickly turned around and headed out walking quickly away from me toward the edge of the campground.
I thought I must be dreaming and crawled out from under the tarp and saw the guy in the spot next to us looking over my way. I said," Did you see that bear". He said the bear woke him up and had been going through his fishing tackle box he left out on top of his picinc table. My heart was pounding quite a bit and it was useless to try and go back to sleep. I rousted up the guys and made a great breakfast of back country breakfast burittos and got ready for the 1st day of hiking. Mike drove us up to the trailhead and dropped us off while he parked his truck down by the camphost office. We began our hike crossing a large valley full of sagebrush with wide open views of the surrounding peaks. Pictures just don't do it justice as it was truly spectacular.
The trail is called the Robinson Creek trail and it is very well maintained and well marked. We traveled through the sage and stumbled upon a leg and haunch of a deer. It was just a few yards off the trail and it caught me eye. It was kinda eerie just seeing a leg with the hide and hoof intack and looking at where it was ripped out of the socket. We all wondered how it ended up here and what kind of horrible death the poor deer suffered. It made us look a little closer at what might be crouching down in the brush beside us but we continued hiking up into the head of the valley.
We passed through a forest of birch trees. and began climbing up a series of switchbacks toward Barney Lake. Mike said it seemed like it was just aroung the corner but it is very deceiving. Our packs were very heavy as we had all over packed and the heat of the day was beginning to take a toll on us. Before long we finally reached Barney Lake and took a much needed break. The lake was beautiful and the water was really cold. Off in the distance we could see the "Nugget" which would feature prominately in our adventure later.
We took a short 30 minute rest and continued south skirting the edge of Barney Lake heading up toward the Nugget and our eventual destination Crown Lake. Mike had told us about two sets of switchbacks that were steep and hard with the second being the worst. At the head of the valley holding Barney Lake we hit the first set of switchbacks. We could see the zigzag trail heading up to the right and began plodding up the trail. We completed the first set of switchbacks and headed through a narrow pass through tall pine trees for awhile then came up on the second set. These were steep and we had to make many stops to catch our breath.Finally we reached the top and came upon the trail sign for a turn off toward Peeler Lake which can be turned into a loop hike if you wish. We had our heart set on Crown Lake so we continued to the left. As we had climbed out of the valley we meandered through a beautiful forest and passed by Robinson Lakes. The first lake is actually pretty large, this one on the other side is really a pond was especially gorgeous and had blue-green water.
We wanted to stop but it was getting late and we knew we had to make it to Crown Lake to set up camp so we just snapped a few photos and continued on. The trail was gently going upward but compaired to the switchbacks was easy and enjoyable.
We finally came to our destination of Crown Lake and were amazed at it's beauty. We could see traces of snow at the south edge near the Nugget and noticed how dark and cold the water looked. The wind seemed to roar down across the lake and bring a chill to your bones. We were somewhat disturbed at how they had placed "No Camping" signs all along the edges of the lake at the best spots so we had to back down the trail and picked a location away from the trail and the view of the lake. I decided not to set up my tarp and sleep under the stars. I picked a sheltered spot behind a large rock with a nifty little flat area for my trusty Svea stove. I had just finished reading Colin Fletcher's, "The Complete Walker" and felt just like him camped out in the open without a tent with my pack propped up against my homemade trekking pole.
I ate beef strogonoff which tasted excellent and I washed it down with my rum & Gatorade mixture which really hit the spot. After having the experience with the bear I was a little leery about not having a tent but decided the odds of having another close encounter of the bear kind would be pretty remote so I decided to sleep under the stars. I didn't really have a place to hang or bear-bag my food so I found a huge rock about 50 yards away from my bedroom. I climbed up as high as I could and extended my treeking pole to it's limit and tossed my food bag up as high as I could. It ended up about 20 feet high and seemed to look perfect and bear-proof.
The guys were so tired from the hike they all went to bed right at dark. I stayed up and waited for the stars. I was glad when I could identify the major groups like the Big & Little Dipper, North Star, Orions belt, Ursa Major and Minor, Taurus and a few others. The noise from the water lapping up along side the shore echoed off the cliff and reminded me of a dog dirnking out of the toilet. About 9:30 PM the moon crested the opposite side of the valley and was as bright as a spotlight into my eyes. Even though I was comfortable and warm in my mummy bag I didn't get much sleep the first night.
On Friday morning I was up at the crack of dawn and whipped up some blueberry pancakes & syrup. I washed it down with milk and instant coffee. The rock where I hid my food bag can be seen in the background. I dug a sump hole and strained my dishwater about 200 yards away and burned my leftover food particles leaving nothing for the rodents.
While some of the guys were fishing for trout, mike went off on his own for some exploring.I walked around the lake and picked a spot to sit down and pull out my map to orient myself to my topo map. The major feature is the buttress looking rock which we initially thought was the focal point of our trip (Crown Point). It turned out to be called "The Nugget" by National Park Service trail crew and Slide Mountain on my topo. It has a large runout of scree and seemed worthy of a closer look.
I grabbed up a few supplies (10 essentials, light, compass, map, fire starter, food etc.). filled up my camelback and started up toward the Nugget. Crown Lake's elevation is about 9800 ft with the Nugget topping out at close to 12,000. My approach observation noticed the large runout of scree and snowfield on top of talus. I decided to take the easier route to the left up to the notch at the edge of the shadow. Through my binoculars I could see large boulders sitting precariously on the steep slope but noticed some dense brush had rooted in a drainage. It looked like the easiest way up so off I went. It was steep but the trekking poles helped maintain my balance. When I got close to the boulders I realized I had underestimated their size with drops of up to 20 feet in the cracks. I worked my way having to use some rock climbing\bouldering skills and found myself staring at an old snow cornice with an interesting tunnel under the ice. I looked around but was unable to find a way around it. I was dertermined to get to the top so I stood as out of the way as I could and gave it a few kicks. The ice held and it looked pretty safe so I got on my knees and crawled under the ice slab.
I can see how they describe a cornice as a frozen wave and I ducked under and crawled through. The light shined through the ice and sparkled. The melting ice dripped on my head as I made my way about 10 feet on my knees. I felt a sigh of relief as I finally stood up and continued up the drainage. The crux of the climb turned out to be a large slab which had few hand holds with a drop of about 20 feet below it. I had to rely on some crimping and friction holds to make it to the top.
The view on top was a big surprise. I had not climbed toward the Nugget but had only attained a ridge separating Crown Lake from Rock Island Pass with a fabulous view toward the Sawtooth Mountains and Matterhorn Peak. There were numerous criques at the heads of bowls of other peak off in the distance but were not visible in the photo.
Turning around and looking north I could see Crown Lake and realized just how high I had climbed.
I knew I had to drop back down to the Rock Island Pass trail and back up the other side to gain another range to get to the top of the Nugget. I knew it would take another couple of hours to get to the top so I decided to head down to the Rock Island Pass and follow the trail back around to the right, past the runout and back to Crown Lake from the west.
Along the way I stumbled on a steep set of switchbacks that worked their way around the edge of slide mountain. I came to a corner of the trail and saw something that made me freeze in my tracks. Crouched down low on the trail ahead of me was a tannish-brown object moving slightly horizontally. I could not make out the head or tail, just the body. It looked like a mountain lion on a kill about 10 yards away. Suddenly it stood up and to my surprise was a lone trail worker with his shirt off building a step on the switchback. He had been at a lower level and was hunched over positioning a flat rock. I laughed and startled him as he probably dosen't see many people up here. We talked for a few minutes, He told me about the Nugget and pointed out Crown Point along with some other landmarks . I thanked him for his hard work on the trail and continued on. As I reached the end of the switchbacks I crossed a stream and came to the top of a ridge that had a great view of Crown Lake from the west.
The trail on the way back to Crown Lake took about two hours but I enjoyed myself and the beautiful scenery. I passed the trail sign for Rock Island Pass and continued back to our camp. The guys were wondering where I had gone and caught a few trout for dinner while I was away.
I brewed up some hot water and took a quick bath. I heard Mike had actually braved the icy cold water and tried to swim across the lake. He made it half way and changed his mind. Either way the quick dip felt good. I had brought so much food I just started eating things that I didn't want to have to carry back. I ate dry salami, pilot biscuits I packed in a pringles can (great idea), with cheddar cheese and rasberry preserves. I made my own cocktail of lemonade crystals and rum which tasted great and really hit the spot and covered the taste of the iodine tablets I added to my water.. I took a quick nap to refresh myself and tried to catch some more trout.
In the late afternoon the wind begins to howl down across Crown Lake from the Nugget. It gathers speed and chill off the remaining snowpack and races across the lake. You can hear it coming about 5 seconds before it hits you. The temperature dropped to about 45 degrees but the wind makes it seem alot colder.
Our last night went quickly, we were more comfortable in our surroundings. We were treated to a clear night and I showed the guys all the star formations I could name, gave them a quick class on nighttime navigation and pointed out a satelite which I noticed cruised by swiftly and silently every night at 9:20 PM. When the moon rose above the cliff it brightened up the sky and faded out the stars but it was still a beautiful night. As we were getting ready for bed a fat rodent came out of the dark and wobbled up to where we were. He ate some of the gorp we had spilled and seemed content, just like we were. I slept out under the stars again and was thankful for being able to take this trip.
The next morning we packed up our gear and said goodbye to Crown Lake. We planned on getting back to Twin Lakes for an afternoon of fishing on the lake but by the time we got back we were too tired. I hot shower and clean clothes can really make you feel great, thank god we brought enough quarters. We decided not to camp that night in Twin Lakes but drove instead down to Mammoth. We were going to get a campsite but were lured by the steaming pool and soft hotel beds so we stayed in a motel instead. The drive home went by quickly and soon enough we were back in SoCal traffic again.
Overall the trip was a success. There were no fights, injuries or illness. We all learned something about ourselves, eachother and our gear. We learned to appreciate nature and the comforts of civilization. I think every year ,at least once, you need to get out away from everything and forget about traffic, time schedules and deadlines. I'm already planning this years trip to climb Mt. Whitney and plan more trips into the backcountry throughout the year.