Thursday, August 20, 2015

Backpacking: Gianelli Cabin to Toejam Lake in the Emigrant Wilderness, Stanislaus National Forest 2015

Once again, like a recreational version of Christmas and my birthday rolled into annual ladies-only backpacking trip! I was so excited leading up to the trip and then, bam!, time to get my gear in order.

Packing up
I did WAY better than last year at keeping the weight down in my pack, coming in at just under 50 pounds. It felt positively light.

This year I managed to convince a few local friends to join us - Catherine (you might remember her, my running/mom/adventure buddy, this was her first real backpacking trip), plus Denise (a WAY experienced backpacker, fellow gym buddy, joining us for the first time) and Katie (also experienced at backpacking, joining us for the first time and famous in my life for talking me up my first "hill" on my first ever road-ride way back in 2008).

The Plan: Gianelli Trailhead to Toejam Lake (yes, that is the real name of the lake; no, I don't know why), located in the Emigrant Wilderness of the Stanislaus National Forest. 

The yellow highlight shows our route in (and out), roughly 9 miles. And here's an elevation profile. Starting in the 8,000' + range for elevation meant some hard work with less oxygen in the air.

The trailhead was about a 4 hour drive from home so a few of us stayed in a motel at the foothills and made the final drive in the morning. Gianelli Cabin trailhead is down a half-mile or so of bumpy dirt road. I was happy my buddy Denise was driving us in her giant truck.

We joined the group at the trailhead and after a hearty round of hellos and some introductions, we got to the serious business of weighing our packs and re-arranging a few things before the even more serious business of a before-we-start group picture.

back row L-R: Jen, Linda, Catherine, Leslie, Me, Sara, Jen. front row: Denise, Katie, Karen
Ten women, ten backpacks, and over 500 pounds of gear, food and alcohol amongst us. This is not for the faint of heart.

Gianelli Cabin trailhead

Hi-ho, hi-ho...
Sara and Jen and Jen
A view of Chewing Gum lake (again with the name, I have no idea)
Whiteside Meadow
The hike in was probably the most beautiful I've been on so far. We did some climbing but the gorgeous views made it all worth it. And Whiteside Meadow took my breath away, I can't remember a bigger or more beautiful meadow. I wish the pictures could capture the majesty of it all, but they just can't.

The journey went pretty well for me. I could have been in better shape but I was never seriously struggling. Working hard, yes; seriously struggling, no. Some blisters formed but I managed to mostly tune out the occasional sting of pain. My shoulders, knees, and hips gave me a bit of discomfort now and then too, but I did my best to ignore that as well. Ibuprofen helped. The trek took us about six hours, including the lunch break and all the photo/potty/pit stops along the way.

And so we arrived, Toejam Lake. Much prettier than its name would imply.

Looking out over Toejam Lake from our camp area
Another of Toejam Lake
And another.

Karen, our fearless leader, went to scout out our campsite while the rest of us sat around gazing at the lake and talking about how a cocktail sounds good right about now. Once at our site, which was perfectly perched above the lake, we all got to unpacking and setting up our tents so we could relax.

My tent (REI quarter dome t2) all set up and ready
As usual, I carried my own tent and slept alone. I'm a light sleeper so it's better that way.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was a bit of work (filtering water, making dinner) and rest, sitting around going over the peaks and valleys of the hike in while also doing some early catching up on what's happened in our lives since we last saw one another a year ago. Along with lengthier introductions of the new women this year.

I had a drink and then it was early to bed. Once in my tent I got out my journal. I'd been looking forward to this trip for a time of soul-searching, hoping to find some inner peace and knowingness that I was struggling to find in the rush and tumble of daily life. So I got out my journal, in which I'd been writing a lot in the months prior to the trip, and...nothing. I paused for a while, and then it came to me. There is nothing here, that isn't there. I carried this journal over miles of wilderness, here to the middle of nowhere, with a searching spirit, only to find I know all I need to know, I wrote, and then put my journal away.

The night was one of the most sleepless I've ever had in the backcountry, tossing and turning and generally feeling restless and awake. Eventually, morning came, and I got on with living. I had my standard breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and then we packed up for our trek to Lake Leopold.

The day-hike wasn't far, less than 3 miles I'm sure, and it was a gorgeous day. There was no trail to this lake but our trusty guides orienteered us there. Lake Leopold did not disappoint. I was awestruck, possibly one of the prettiest little lakes I've known. I wish I could capture it, but even with taking a bit of video (below), it just doesn't do it justice.

Lake Leopold

Karen and I with happy hiking smiles

Another of Lake Leopold

The sun was playing hide-and-seek and it was sometimes a bit chilly. We ate lunch, read, and took a dip in the lake, which yes, it was damn cold, but we didn't adventure all this way to skip a dip in a mountain lake.

Katie, sitting on a rock in the lake

Me and some of the girls taking a dip
My lunch - a Middle Eastern wrap with salami, cheese, hummus and avocado. And trail mix.
Oh, we also passed around some yummy drinks. The sarsaparilla whiskey was my favorite and went down quite nicely.

Group shot!
After a bit more lounging we hit the road back, exploring the area along the way.

Jen, Karen and Linda

Jen and I and more happy hiking smiles

Another view of Lake Leopold
A few pics of our return trek...

Somehow we always end up with some tricky maneuvering needed

During the hike back to Toejam we came to a small meadow and I was reminded of a group picture I took last year. I decided to sort of imitate it and fortunately for me, all the ladies obliged.

LtoR: Karen, Sara, Denise, Catherine, Laura, Jen, Leslie, Jen, Me, Katie
Seriously, how cool is that? I love this picture. If I carried pictures in my wallet I'd tuck this one in with pics of my kids. Such a powerful image of womanity and nature here for me.

Ok, back at camp for a bit more exploring around our lake. And then a beautiful sunset.

Freerange Sara and I

All the cool girls
no filter. really, it looked like this. Toejam lake at sunset.
The sky was putting on quite a show. I have a bunch more images and in each one the colors are different, from blues to pinks to purples. And the reflection in Toejam only added to the gloriousity of it all.

And as dark set in we got to the real work of more talking, fire-building, eating and drinking. I stayed up for all the festivities and shenanigans (poor Sara!), moving on from the cosmos I brought (including fresh lime juice, what a treat) to honey whiskey, my new favorite backpacking adult beverage.

Jen tending to the fire

Sara, me and Katie
The bats started flying over our fire, eating the insects, and we entertained ourselves by attempting to count them while oohing and ahhing at the lightening that started to flash. What a night! Eventually it became clear, though, that it was time for sleep. Just before bed I drank a ton of water, hoping to counteract the alcohol. I did my best to sleep.

I remember waking a few times to a gust of wind. Then rain. Though I was too groggy to register much, I felt like I stayed in a light sleep state, not helped getting up no less than four times to use the facilities. And like always, morning came.

No hangover. Win! I rustled up some breakfast and listened as two dayhikes started forming, one in search of a peak and another in search of lakes. I went with lakes. Specifically, we decided to look for Granite Lake and then Y Meadow Lake, all off-trail orienteering.

Another breathtaking day, sometimes literally as we climbed up, over and back down mountains.

We'll be down in that meadow, and then over the climb on the other side
Look at that sky
Lots of cooks, but no kitchen
We spent quite a lot of time looking for Granite Lake. And looking. And while we were unable to find it (a first for me with this group), the journey was spectacular. At one point I was bounding around to peek over cliff edges and felt like a kid in Disneyland. There is no unknowingness in a place like this.

Can you spot me?
So we had lunch and then moved on to search for Y Meadow Lake, which was exactly where we expected it to be, unlike the elusive Granite Lake. The weather was chillier than the day prior and no one got in the water.

Unfortunately, it was too cold to swim.

Catherine and I
In all my reminiscing I forgot to mention that I had a bit of a stomach bug the first couple of days. Nothing too disruptive but still not fun, especially when you have to dig holes to go to the bathroom. Anyway, after a bit of rest we made the return trek. One group decided to go the most direct route, back up and over mountains. The other did a roundabout to avoid the climb. I was in the former group, but you knew that already. And, sadly, it turned out the roundabout group hiked 40-minutes longer and still had to do some climbing. A bird in the hand, or something like that.

Back at camp and it started to drizzle. I tried to sit outside and read but then tiny hail started falling. Time to head indoors, made better with a cup of whiskey and my magazine.

Not a bad way to while away a couple hours
It wasn't too long before the weather cleared and we all started making dinner.

As night fell we did our best to finish off the alcohol while doing a bit of trip-discussion for next year. Kings Canyon? Mammoth?

trip-planning by headlamp
watching bats and star-gazing
Look at that sky
I settled in for my last night of sleep in the backcountry. Morning came, up and at 'em, making coffee, breakfast, packing and readying for our hike out. I was sad to see it coming to a close.

Ready to hit the trail
My pack was so much lighter without food or alcohol! We took a group departure picture in front of Toejam and then hit the trail toward home.

The hike out mesmerized me. I found myself drifting back from the group so I could listen to nothing other than the sound of my steps on the trail.

I felt so peaceful, my soul at rest. I slowed, not wanting to arrive back at there. But as I walked I reminded myself of what I'd thought on day one of the trip, there is nothing here that isn't there

So I enjoyed the meditative calm of one foot in front of the other, feeling the sometimes cool air on my skin, listening to the birds, noticing the clouds in the sky. It really was a gorgeous day in the Sierra Nevada and I am a very, very lucky girl to get to experience it like this.

And then we were back at the trailhead. We popped open some champagne, clinked bottles, congratulated ourselves for being kickass and awesome, with one final group picture to commemorate our achievement.

Then we piled in the vehicles to Pinecrest Lake for a final, sweat washing dip in a lake before driving home. Pinecrest was an assault on the senses after the peace and solitude we experienced in the wild. It was a beautifully situated lake, but with what seemed like a million people teeming on a hot Saturday afternoon.

Pinecrest lake

Catherine, Katie, Denise and I
We took a dip, rinsed off the dusty miles, and then shared a round of hugs and heartfelt "See you next year!" between us all. Already, I can't wait.