The summer of 2006 was not the usual well planned out sequence of photography road trips and backpacking adventures of my past years, as I had alternative possibilities with my print business that I might have acted on. Thus by the end of June, I began a series of road trips and backpacks that were only committed to after completing each preceding trip and evaluating weather and high country conditions. At the beginning of August on a trip up into the Cathedral Range of Yosemite, I noted that in order to experience peak wildflower conditions in the nearby Ritter Range, it would be wise to delay my following imminent trip into that area about a week. So after returning to my car at the Tuolumne Meadows trailhead, instead of driving south to Mammoth Lakes as planned, I returned home to the SF Bay Area. A long time photography friend of mine that I've often shared trips with in the backcountry, was just returning from a week visiting his folks out of state. So I contacted him on this opportunity to join me. Though his remaining vacation days were limited, Doug thought that over briefly and committed to the flexible trip I outlined. Areas both of us had photographed in the past with smaller format gear and wished to shoot with our view cameras. Actually I'd brought my view camera up into these areas in recent years but due to weather and choices, didn't come back with the material I'd hoped for.
The Ritter Range trailheads in Ansel Adams Wilderness are among the most frequented by backpackers in the Sierra Nevada. So the reserved trailhead quota of 18 had already long been filled on the Agnew Meadows trailhead for the Saturday or Friday start date we might use. In order to pick up one of the remaining 12 unreserved slots I would need to be at the visitor center at 11am on one of the days before those dates. So instead of being able to share the costly gasoline expense, I drove up independently on Wednesday afternoon, road camping below Tioga Pass, in order to be certain to obtain one of the walk up permits. Thursday morning I made sure I was first in line when the Mammoth Visitor Center permit office opened up at 11am. I received the wilderness permit, phoned Doug, set up a dawn trailhead time, and he subsequently drove up that night.
The rest of Thursday, I leisurely visited an old friend who I used to work with in Silicon Valley and now lives in Mammoth. At dawn Friday, I was up and out on the road over Minaret Summit and down to the Agnew Meadows trailhead. Doug's car pulled in minutes after mine and we quickly pulled out our nearly ready to go packs then completed final gear checks. A worn out cord on my old Lowe backpack snapped so I spent a few minutes rigging up a temporary fix before we departed about 6am as sunshine was likely just brightening Mount Ritter.
My carrying weight given the heavy camera gear was near 70 pounds and Doug's about 60. It was our second backpack together this summer, my fourth of the summer, and my nineteenth over the years into Ansel Adams Wilderness. Our destination was an area we'd camped near before about a half-mile beyond Lake Ediza's outlet or about 1500 feet and 6 miles distant. Arguably one of the most scenic basins in the Sierra Nevada. On our last day we might return this same way or per an option loop down to Devils Postpile National Monument a few miles down the road then take the shuttle bus back to our cars. As serious landscape photographers that have extensively traveled the Sierra over long years, our backpacking style is one of base camping at aesthetic locales where we can more thoroughly explore and get to know these most beautiful places. We have always been drawn to remote offtrail travel even where terrain is tedious, strenuous, and dangerous. Base camping does allow us to relax a bit from the excessive strain of lugging up such heavy weights. However even on layover days we are base camping, we are carrying about our camera gear which alone weighs as much as lighter backpacker packs.
Frost covered the quiet meadows beside the 8315 foot trailhead on this clear chilly morning. Tall past peak monkshood, aster, and scenicio in the still dim light would soon dry and wither. On the wide dusty trail, we quickly entered a lodgepole and jeffrey pine forest that gradually descended to the brink of the lower canyon. There the trail descends a couple hundred feet down a brushy sun-baked slope scattered with jeffrey pine and sierra juniper before reaching glacially scoured metasedimentary bedrock at the bottom of the canyon at 8035 feet. A few hundred yards away, the cascading Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River was audible across the sparsely treed landscape. A few later season wildflowers like penstemon still grew along the trail though most at this hot lower elevation had long since gone to seed and withered. Even though I was just wearing a thin long sleeved uncoated nylon shell above, my effort carrying the pack warmed me to an invigoratingly yet comfortable hiking temperature. Below I wore my usual Levi 505's as my offtrail backpacking style requires pants with durable material to take a beating from scraping rock and vegetation. And atop my head was a long brimmed tan colored nylon safari cap with a well-designed neck and ear guard. There was no easy way for the inevitable mosquitoes to easily land on my skin while hiking even without DEET.
The trail continues north rising gradually before passing the lodgepole bench with stale lily pad covered Olaine Lake. Then at the Shadow Lake Trail junction about 2.5 miles along, we left the River Trail and soon crossed the modest sized river on a sturdy wooden trail bridge. Above was a steep 600 foot vertical trail section with many unpleasant tall step-ups constructed decades long ago apparently by an over-active trail crew. Horse packing is quite active in the Ritter Range with droppings and accompanying flies regularly adding more unpleasantries. Where waterfalls cascade down Shadow Creek below Shadow Lake, the sun caught up with us and we stopped to evaluate potential images along that section. With its considerable all year snowfields, Shadow Creek flows are larger than the other major branches from Minaret, Garnet, or Thousand Island Lakes. Shortly later, we were glad to reach the well visited by dayhikers lake at 8737 feet surrounded by lodepole pines. A couple of tall slender elders from our trailhead were the first hikers to pass us by on their way to Ediza. From the shady eastern shores, parts of both The Minarets and 13,143 foot Mount Ritter loomed up the canyon. Temperatures were nicely cooler than normal with a modest breeze rippling waters of the lake. A bit further along the shore tiny snow mosquitoes began harassing us so I stopped and applied a bit of DEET to my forearms and face.
Above the lake, the trail joins the famous John Muir Trail for about a mile where we began to see others moving along the trail. We slowly trudged up the rising trail observing the beautiful canyon scenery along the delightful stream and taking the usual increasingly frequent brief rest stops at every convenient waist-high set of rocks. Leaving the famous trail we continued on the spur west as fresh greenery and wildflowers showed we were entering elevations that were closer to peak summer conditions. Increasingly weary, at 10am we finally reached the world-class beauty of Lake Ediza at 9265 feet with the towering twins of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak to the northwest and the exquisite spires of The Minarets to the southwest. We were glad to see short red Pierson's paintbrush peaking along green turfy shore edges where we would be shooting the next morning. Other wildflower species as pussy paws, butterballs, spirea, sierra penstemon, monkeyflower, phlox, arrowhead senicio, Lemmon's paintbrush, western aster, pennyroil, red heather, white heather, kalmia, and cinquefoil graced every open spot of soil not covered by rock, tree, or turf. The rich metavolcanic soils of the Ritter Range arguably bring out the finest timberline wildflowers in the range. By late morning we had reached our camp zone at about 9.5k and dropped our heavy loads below a small grove of tall mountain hemlocks.
A few years earlier during monsoonal weather, we'd camped about one hundred yards away in denser, more protective trees. Trees of the upper Shadow Creek basin are almost entirely mountain hemlock with considerable open slopes due to winter avalanche paths. The spot we chose this time in what promised to be fair weather was more open with views including the top of Mount Ritter, The Minarets, and Two Teats. A tall shady vertical rock wall sheltered us from possible winds. Below the cliff was a small pile of talus the local rodents likely enjoyed and a small snow patch unmelted in those shadows. A bit below us surrounded by turf, colorful metavolcanic rock, and wildflowers, was one of the headwater branches of Shadow Creek. We made camp, started our stoves for lunch, took a quick dip in the stream, and then enjoyed a couple hours in our sleeping bags under the shady conifers. Both of us were carrying only our bivy sacks instead of tents, so easily fit into the smallest flat spots.
Later in the afternoon we rose from our much needed rests then ventured out stiffly like old men with arthritis to explore conditions about the area. We quickly noted some areas were wonderful with bright green turfy meadows and wildflowers while some others we might have shot had so recently come out of the snows that wildflowers had barely emerged. In any case we would have more than enough choices to keep us busy for two mornings. Photography on the popular eastern slopes of the Ritter Range is mainly done during mornings while front lit by the rising sun to the east. Though we usually lug around our 20 to 30 pounds of camera gear in case something surprises us on such afternoon explorations, I only exposed three sheets over the two afternoons we were in that area. One of our options had been to spend a day up at the higher Nydiver Lakes a mile away. However with the amount of snow we'd seen up high, that might not be too productive. Instead another option to visit Minaret Lake increasingly firmed up in our discussions. That idea required crossing a likely long dangerous snowfield beside Iceberg Lake and then continuing south on a short but strenuous use route across Volcanic Ridge. Until we had a chance to actually take a look at the snowfield, it would be an unknown to worry about. The tall crest of the range to our immediate west made for early shadows in late afternoon. We almost never make campfires so when the cool and darkness of evening arrived, we were quick to complete dinner chores and slip comfortably into our sleeping bags for the night. In these high areas with much water about, mosquitoes were still annoying us in modest numbers so we kept mosquito nets over our heads at night.
Saturday morning we were up when sunrise began lighting the top of the peaks. Although photographers often make an effort to work sunrise light on peaks, I find the dark metavolcanic geology of the Ritter Range to be less aesthetic at sunrise than the usual Sierra granite unless one is directly on axis between the sun and target peaks or the rock is covered mostly by snow. The resulting warm reddish alpenglow is often muted into a muddy dark orange. The bright gold phase light on such rock a few minutes later looks even less so like baby poo. And we were rather off axis midway between both The Minarets and Mount Ritter.
Shortly I was up at Ritter Pass meadows where a few small pools of still water provided an opportunity for reflections of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak to the north. For about an hour we exposed a few sheets of Provia 100F transparency film in reasonably calm conditions. Much of the geology of the Ritter Range is dark brown and gray earth tones so soils on the bottoms of shallow pools and streams are also dark. The resulting reflection of dark peaks on dark shallow water can result in darkishly unaesthetic results. After having worked just a modest number of possibilities in the area, I folded up my big Gitzo G1325 tripod legs with my cherrywood Wisner atop, and rambled along the worn use path downstream in order to reach the turfy shores of Ediza Lake.
It was important to work those shores when the sun had risen high enough to reduce shadows and illuminate the vegetation nicely. Also the warming landscape would decrease the usual sumping night breezes that for a brief period about mid morning might balance the countering beginning up canyon breezes. All but the highest mountain lakes tend to teem with small lifeforms by late summer and such life eventually ends up sedimenting on bottoms as yearly brown layers. Thus many lake bottoms do not have good reflectivity and resulting photography of such shallow bottoms in foregrounds may end up unaesthetically dark if the background peaks are also dark. The area of the lake I chose to shoot was where afternoon winds regularly blow water waves that over time create eroded sandy shores. And those bright sandy shores are regularly stirred up by the waves so they remain exposed at the bottom instead of being covered by the brown organic debris. Another issue in the timing was that with a low sun altitude, one's cast shadow is longer. Thus arriving earlier would have tended to interfere with potential on axis near foregrounds of bright green turf and wildflowers.
I reached the shores and set up quickly. The lake was reasonably calm with a light intermittent breeze swirling about stirring the surface and small brook trout generating little circular waves. Doug taking my queue leaving the upper meadows, soon joined me at the shore. We exposed several sheets over the next hour. As a group of morning backpackers circled around the lake, I exposed a sheet just as they passed the corner of the lake where I caught their reflection in the water with The Minarets in the background. I handed out a couple business cards as they passed which would later result in print sales. As a lake in the center of a wide and open canyon below a breezy high pass, on most summer mornings Lake Ediza doesn't calm enough to make reasonable reflections of its beautiful background peaks. Thus a photographer visiting the lake would be wise to plan spending at least two or three days in the area to guarantee at least one morning with some calm water. We were lucky to receive that calm the first morning of our trip which then allowed us to move on to other areas of the range. As 9am approached with increasing up canyon breezes, I left Doug alone there as I hurried back up towards our camp for other subjects. A couple exposed sheets later and it was over for me that morning. I'd exposed 15 sheets which are double what I usually shoot on good mornings. None were brackets, as I rarely do so, instead relying on getting the tricky exposures right the first and only time. Although I carry a digital exposure meter, my sensitivity to usual mountain summer light once the sun is up some is so keen, that when I guess what the incident reading might be, it is usually within 0.1 EV. Only occasionally do I resort to taking spot readings. From the type of scene elements and orientation to the sun, I then make an educated guess modifying the raw readings to an appropriate EV level for setting my Copal shutter aperture and speed.
The rest of our day was pretty relaxed as we enjoyed eating, snacking, napping, mixed with some easy explorations. When exerting myself on backpacking trips, I eat more than when at home bringing up many snack items like candy I normally rarely eat. In the afternoon I did take a nice back lit image of mountain pride penstemon glowing below silhouettes of Mount Ritter and Banner Peak. We talked more about our strategy for Sunday morning and firmed up our plan to break camp midday and attempt to reach Minaret Lake.
Sunday dawn, we rose, and then in frosty conditions, headed up towards large Ritter Pass snowfields where we hoped to catch some early warm light. The atmosphere to the east wasn't particularly clear so the resulting sunrise light was mediocre. We then precariously walked atop a long low angle section of the slippery frozen snow in order to reach an area where the stream had created a snow cave. Neither of those attempts resulted in anything too noteworthy. Doug and I parted as he headed off towards locations we'd surveyed Friday afternoon while I climbed up a scree fan towards a patch of magenta I hoped was sierra primrose. That turned out to be a worthwhile gamble and I found absolutely peaking deeply magenta areas of those beautiful wildflowers. The near full moon was still up in the sky above the ridge. I set up my tripod on a steep and awkward spot but by time I'd completed setup and shoved in a film holder, the moon was 95% behind the rocky cliff. Despite my speed working in the field, large format work still takes some time to get a shot off thus we regularly miss out on fleeting opportunities others would capture.
I exposed a few more sheets that morning, however some slightly smoky air moved over the area making for mediocre blues so I ended the morning work and went back to camp to pack up. After packing I used the spare time to unload my film holders within my light tight change bag and load in new sheets of film. Doug later returned and by late morning we loaded up our heavy packs on our way up to Iceberg Lake a few hundred feet higher to the south. By midday we reached Iceberg and dropped our packs in the one heavily used campsite above the lake outlet where some hemlock provided pleasant shade. A couple of dayhiking gals with a frolicking dog rested in the sunshine of those shores. And yea there be ice floating on the lake. We walked down the shore and surveyed conditions on the long snowfield. Its firmness and slope affirmed our expectaction that it would be best to allow the early afternoon sun to soften the surface a bit more. We returned to the campsite and broke out our stoves for some lunch.
The infamous Iceberg Lake via Cecile Lake to Minaret Lake cross country use route is also a part of Roper's High Sierra Route. After most snows have melted, much of the use route looks like a well-used rough and tedious trail. The more snow however, the worse and more difficult. The main issue with that was the winter of 2006 left a massive snowpack with lots of snow still at this date in August. Something I had done once before long ago in August of 1982, a huge El Nino year. The dangers of that crossing at a higher and steeper slope above the lake made quite an impression on me.
This mid August of 2006, Iceberg Lake at 9774 foot elevation had a long snowfield of about 800 feet to cross. A slip and fall there could potentially result in a 50 foot or so vertical slide right into the frigid lake waters with nothing but icebergs to grab onto. Unless one is wearing crampons, the traverse is normally done mid afternoon after the otherwise firm snow surface has a chance to soften up an inch or two. When softened up, one will probably be able to self-arrest after falling. However when carrying a backpack the situation becomes increasingly more precarious with more weight. My friend and I both carry extra heavy packs as we were lugging around large format view camera gear with mine adding about 30 pounds to the rest of my 40 pounds of pack filled with camping gear. Neither of us wanted to chance losing our backpacking gear with a slip and fall even if we ourselves managed to self-arrest. I rolled an eight inch diameter rock down the softening 40% grade slope and it readily continued all the way to the water. And we especially did not want to lose our expensive camera gear each worth several thousand dollars. The view above is along the east shore of Iceberg lake looking south to the snowfield we were to cross. The west shore of this lake has a larger snowfield that falls far more steeply from the towering Minaret pinnacles above.
The image at left shows the general route with a yellow dotted line. The image is a bit compressed so the slope gradient of about 40% is steeper than it appears. The crumbling talus slope beyond the snowfield has a use route that leads 465 feet up to the top lake in the basin, Cecile Lake. A stream drops from that lake near the end of the dotted yellow line at the small snowfield.
The next image at right shows the first two backpackers of the day crossing the long snowfield above Iceberg Lake at 2:15 pm giving some scale to the landscape. Their footsteps hardly dented the surface. The lead fellow did not bother kicking steps though kept reasonably good balance. The following gal fell down five times and was obviously quite annoyed by this dangerous crossing she later related they had no expectation of. She was able to immediately self arrest each time to prevent tumbling down into the icy lake. Although a few groups had been making the crossing during this August period, the footprints of those crossings were barely noticeable still slanting marks that didn't provide preferred locations to step. The gal was obviously also unhappy about the difficult route leading up to the snowfield. Her companion didn't appreciate our brief comments about this notorious route since she had obviously been complaining along the way. I wondered if this was another group without a wilderness permit since the rangers might have warned them about such conditions. Without crampons, the wise way to cross the slope would be to have along trekking poles that give considerable stability with each step. After they passed, Doug who is a talented rock climber, rather quickly walked across the slope while using one of his long Gitzo G1325 tripod legs for occasional support. I followed and for more security opened up the three legs. As an advanced skier of many years, I have experience crossing steep snow slopes with ski boots and a considerable respect to its dangers. However I'd used my one-year old $200 mountaineering boots so much that the Vibram soles were nearly smooth without grooves to grip. I methodically advanced one step at a time while moving my same model tripod ahead for stable support. As the slope gradient relaxed I used it less the rest of the way.
After crossing the snowfield we slowly climbed up the steep use path of granite talus and eroded gruss. Near the top I passed a minor rib where the route normally follows up the stream channel flowing out of higher Cecile Lake. However when the long snowfield is there, that channel is often still covered with a small snowfield too. Thus one is forced to negotiate a short 30-foot vertical or so section of class 3 slope in order to gain the brink of Cecile Lake. By time I reached that point, Doug had long negotiated that section and was resting above. I did not choose the best route and found myself grabbing for handholds while my 70 pounds of pack were trying to pull me backwards off the steep rock. A type of climbing I've done before but dread each time. The slope had quite a bit of loose granite sand and pebble rubble on foot placements that made it more precarious. Falling may not have resulted in tumbling down much further than 30 feet below but still enough to do major bodily damage. With determination I grabbed securely each hold and made a few exposed dynamic moves that ended up gaining the upper wall leading to safety.
The north shores of talus bound Cecile Lake at 10,239 feet are just a few feet from this brink. A breeze blew across wavy waters while the sun glared through the dark backlit Minaret towers above. After a ten-minute break we headed around the east shore of the one-third mile long lake which is continual small to moderate sized dark metavolcanic talus. Something we have considerable experience negotiating even with heavy packs though it is certainly tedious. Unfortunately an even steeper snowfield on Cecile's southeast shores prevented our following it around to the other side. Thus we backpackers climbed an extra two hundred feet above the snow before descending into the Minaret Creek drainage below. We topped out at 10,450 feet and enjoyed the nice view south with near Rigelhuth Minaret, in the mid distance Red Top Mountain, and far in the distance peaks as Red Slate and Seven Gables.
We scrambled down two hundred feet to a small talus bound ravine I was familiar with that has considerable sierra primrose. A small pond guards the south ravine exit which then spills over cliffs. After another short rest, we exited that ravine via a small saddle where a well-pounded zigzagging use path descends a crumbling slope just as steep as the Cecile headwall we negotiated earlier. But no class 3 with each step well formed. After Doug had descended most of the way down well ahead of me, a basketball sized rock broke loose by mere rare chance from the top of one of the chutes high above the route and tore out more rocks as it noisily blasted down. Though about 30 feet in front of me, for a minute I wondered about the fate of my unseen friend before rounding a shelf that blocked my view. The more used route to Cecile follows the ravine behind Minaret Lake up to a closeout near Cecile that requires climbing up a short but steep chute. Having visited the area a few times, I learned to avoid the chute and rather climb this steep slope via the primrose ravine.
Within a half hour we were down beside Minaret Lake. I had a good idea of where we might camp at near what I refer to as Flower Island Lake, one of several small unnamed ponds by the famous lake. A grove of mountain hemlock there offered a quite pleasant wind protected area. It was nearly 6pm and the sun was getting close to dropping behind the dark heights of the Minarets. We quickly emptied our gear and walked over to the nearby pond that predictably had less chilly water than the nearby larger lake. The quick dip was refreshing as we were quite stressed and sweaty. After laying out our gear we soon were eating dinner and relaxing. In the late afternoon shadows we were excited enough about what awaited us the next day despite weariness, that we hiked a bit about our part of the lake surveying possible photo locations. There was a lot to be excited about as the surrounding rich metavolcanic rock geology provides some of best wildflower displays in the Ritter Range. Especially prominent were Pierson's paintbrush which are short indian paintbrush that can densely cover turfy lawn areas in the High Sierra. That over we escaped into our down sleeping bags for the much needed nightly recuperation.
In the wee hours of Monday morning I became concerned with the slight smell of smoke. Indeed we were extremely frustrated when dawn broke revealing considerable hazy smoke. Sometimes smoke from distant fires may obscure skies for days on end while at other times the whole canopy of smoke might disappear in mere hours. Very fortunately the latter was the case that day and by later morning blue skies dominated. However it was a quite breezy morning that would have prevented our working the many possible lake and pond reflections we valued. After just exposing a few 4x5 sheets in areas away from waters we could only hope our last morning offered more. Back at camp late in the morning, we packed up once again then moved a half-mile to a camp spot below the Minaret Lake outlet in order to shorten our distance to the trailhead. The drainage dropped away below us into green forests with Mammoth Mountain looming in the distance and the dark Rigelhuth Minaret dominating our area.
There we spent our second relaxing afternoon of the trip. Minaret Lake is one of the most incredible lakes one will see in the Sierra. Many tourist see the Minarets from either US395 or Minaret Summit however the view from directly below at this lake is by far the most dramatic. With bands of striped light green, dark green, and rusty bedrock, and the striking Minarets above it is indeed unworldly surealistic. The highest of those spires Clyde Minaret rises to 12,263 feet with a large rusty spot below center. Although one can day hike up from Devils Postpile, the distance and vertical are enough to make such a hike too much effort. Besides by time a day hiker might reach the lake, the best early morning light that brings out the fine rock colors would be long gone. So backpacking is really the only wise way to experience what is one of the crown jewels of the Sierra Nevada.
Our work the second and third mornings of the trip in the upper Shadow Creek basin had been productive but conditions in the Minaret Lake area were so unusually ideal that we well hoped to bring some of that glory back with us. Our final morning Tuesday was indeed calmer early on so we did manage a few fine images before the up canyon breezes became unreasonable. Back at Flower Island Lake I nailed one image I'd surveyed that provided a backlit reflection that with silhouettes of mountain hemlock looked much like a spiny rockfish. All along the trip there were many superb images we just did not have a chance to shoot due to time constraints or breezy waters. We will enjoy returning as the unique geology of the Ritter Range arguably has the finest scenery in the Sierra Nevada Range. Doug had reasons to get back earlier than I, so sped solo down the long 7.5 mile 2400 foot downhill trail to Devils Postpile National Monument.
Near the outlet bay of the convuluted lake, I was disgusted to see where stupid inconsiderate backpackers had recently scraped away turf to make a rectangular tent spot an illegal 60 feet from the lake in a particularly scenic zone. As a further indication of their lack of wilderness ethic, they had carried a few large rocks to a spot just 30 feet from the water where they burned some wood. Both Doug and I regularly tear apart such illegal fire rings and this time I also took a couple digital images that will at some point be sent to the national forest people. In Ansel Adams Wilderness, fires are allowed below 10,000 feet. However several large and popular lakes in the Ritter Range are just below that elevation so one will find many firepits both legal and illegal about those shores. I would like the forest service to revise those policies and drop the legal campfire elevation down to 9600 feet. Areas above that in the Ritter Range, especially about the large lakes have too few trees and many years of ugly abuses.
An hour later I also started my own descent down the long trail. The lower part of that popular trail is among the Sierra's most dusty and dirty with considerable horse traffic and a surface of dusty pumice from the nearby volcanic areas. What a miserably weary, grubby, dirty, guy I felt like when I knocked on the door of my Mammoth Lakes friend an hour later where a hot shower, and washing machine changed all that. The next morning I was quite refreshed and began my fifth backpack trip of the summer a bit further south in Rock Creek. ...David Senesac