It’s been impossible to miss the twin jewels Jupiter and Saturn arrayed across the southern sky this summer… It’s the first thing I notice night after night when I walk into the back yard of our suburban home. But how cruel it is to know that the heart of the Milky Way, its glowing core rent in two by the Great Rift, would also be visible if it were not for the lights of the sprawling city surrounding us. How cruel that for four nights in August, the Milky Way was the centerpiece of a sky so full of stars that one could not imagine how the ancient constellations were picked out, their stars only marginally brighter than many others vying for our attention, almost as if all the up-and-comers of the night sky had risen to challenge the aging prima donnas.

It was a summer of madness, a summer of stifling heat spent indoors with nowhere to go, a summer of looking forward to one carefully-planned journey that almost didn’t happen… As August approached, too many variables were still in play, and too many things could still go wrong with the annual backpacking trip my friend George and I had been looking forward to since the grueling downclimb from Lower Sardine Lake the previous summer.

But then, the stars aligned, a wilderness permit was secured, and on a hot Tuesday evening we found ourselves speeding out of Los Angeles toward the inviting embrace of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. A few obstacles remained… We would be camping south of Mammoth, arriving near midnight at a reserved campsite that could well be given away or otherwise occupied despite assurances from the camp manager. 

The next morning, we would be vying for one of a handful of parking spaces at the trailhead, as buses into Devils Postpile National Monument were not operating. Not finding a spot meant adding nearly 9 roundtrip miles and 600 feet of elevation to a route already five miles longer due to a lack of bus service from our trailhead to our exit point. An uneventful drive fueled by a thermos full of coffee culminated at French Camp on Rock Creek Road near Tom’s Place. Finding our reserved spot unoccupied, we quickly pitched our Nemo Hornet two-person tent, then took our time as a thick blanket of stars, crowned by the Milky Way and the beginning of the Perseid meteor shower tore our gaze from our campsite and occupied our imagination for the next hour. The Nemo tent is very compact and extremely lightweight, but as we’d learned the week before when testing the tent in my back yard, it has room for our two sleeping pads and not much else. If we both couldn’t sleep in its tight confines, then the tent would be abandoned for a much heavier alternative for our hike. We managed, though, and a little bit of discomfort was far outweighed by the more than five-pound reduction in my pack weight.

Hemmed in by the canyon formed by Rock Creek, we woke to the relative darkness of predawn skies, picked up a royal breakfast of lox on toasted bagel sandwiches and coffee from Mammoth Village, and found ourselves pulling into the very last parking spot at Agnew Meadows just before 8 in the morning. As it turned out, an entire high school cross-country team was using the trail for practice, and several of the coveted parking spots were occupied by parents awaiting their athletic offspring. Soon, we were on the Shadow Lake Trail, intent on reaching our first night’s destination before the stifling afternoon heat. At first, the trail gradually descended toward, and then paralleled the middle fork of the San Joaquin river. Past Olaine Lake, a series of switchbacks, each more exposed than the previous, led the way toward the cascades beneath Shadow Lake and the lake itself. The sprawling lake, almost exactly at the halfway mark of our day’s trek, provided a brief packs-down respite as we soaked in the alpine landscape and shook our heads enviously as each high school track runner went by, obviously in much better shape than our quarantine-stricken selves.

The change in landscape was subtle at first, and our senses were dominated by the deafening roar of Shadow Creek as it battled the granite crags lining its path, all the while spraying water and the brilliance of the morning Sun on its surroundings. But then, the trail flattened, gentling and muting the rushing waters heading downstream, and our path began to weave through alpine meadows and sparse woodland. Birdsong filled the meadows, and pockets of wildflowers appeared among the fields of twisty cornflower leaves, each rising like Icarus, fated to be the first to burn away under the summer Sun. Several hikers had warned us that the bridge at our final crossing of Shadow Creek, just below Ediza Lake, had been swept away during the winter, necessitating a detour over an easier portion of the creek, where hopping from one slick rock onto another proved to be less harrowing than we’d imagined.

Often, the most beautiful part of an alpine lake is the mad jumble at the head of the stream that, like a slow leak in a water pouch, is constantly draining the handiwork of Sun on snow. Rounded and moss-covered boulders and tree trunks bleached white with age did their best in damming and delaying the impatient stream, and in fully captivating our tired gazes. In the distance, the Ritter Minarets lined the southern flank. Unlike their named brethren to the southeast, or the majestic Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak rising to the northwest, the Ritter Minarets almost seem like an afterthought, jagged teeth broken in the act of breaching through the volcanic soil of the Sierra.

Numerous signs had warned us not to camp anywhere on the eastern side of the lake, a warning that we’d see unheeded by several backpackers later in the day. On the southern side of the lake, two tents already adorned the coastline, and one party had even shunned a perfect campsite to pitch their tent in the open, scant yards from the water. We headed for a wooded slope to the west of the lake, where our eventual campsite overlooked not just the lake, but a boisterous cascade in the stream emptying Iceberg Lake far above us into Ediza. The cascade and its myriad rapids, each a gem in a dazzling jeweled necklace, would become the object of our adoration at sunset, in the dark of the night, and at first light the next morning.

A backpacking trip isn’t just a journey from point A to point B, it’s not a race to the finish, and it’s certainly not a list of lakes and landmarks one visits during the trip. It’s the time you spend in the wilderness, surrounded only by the sounds of the wind through the trees, water gurgling downstream, the chirping of birds, and the scrambling of chipmunks and marmots. It’s solitude so precious, that even the most distant, but sufficiently loud, conversation is felt as an infringement, an unnecessary addition to the tableau. Downtime, whether it’s spent basking in the sun, reading a book, or just lounging idly in the cool shadow of evergreens, is perhaps as precious as the hike itself, and something I look forward to at the end of each day’s journey.

An early dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce was settling in our stomachs as the Sun began to set, altering the palette of the landscape in the warmer hues of refracted light. The Sun sets behind the Eastern Sierra, so that sunsets tend to be relatively drab affairs, at least compared to the glory of sunrise. In the absence of clouds, color simply evaporates from the landscape, retreating to the highest peaks, painting them golden, well before the Sun has kissed the hidden horizon. The hush of sounds is now a hush of color as well, a time when it seems as if blue-tinted glasses were placed in front of our eyes. Detail springs to life in the landscape… With the brilliance of reflected light from the lake and streams now gone, one begins to notice the moss and lichen on rocks lining streams, wildflowers growing improbably in the torrent, and logs having found temporary respite from their inevitable downstream tumble.

Nightfall, ever so gradual, is made more so by the anticipation one feels for the darkness of a moonless night, when stars will come out to play by the thousands. With less and less patience, one waits for the first star to appear, for the first planet to grace the invisible ecliptic running across the sky. The Milky Way will rise behind us, away from the now busy lake shore, so the lake is abandoned for the stream near our campsite. With a landscape so rich in detail, every effort by the tall pines between us and the Milky Way to block our view is met only by a smirk, as the next set of rapids volunteers itself as a foreground (see first photo in this essay). We have all night to stargaze, and the seconds of fame each meteor earns as it burns across the atmosphere is met with awe and appreciation. There are meteors aplenty, as we are still well within the littered path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the periodic source of the Perseid meteor shower. Though the radiant of the meteor shower, in the constellation Perseus, takes its time to rise above the horizon, the sky is nevertheless crisscrossed continually by fiery trials until a need for sleep and rest withdraws us into our tent.

A cloudless sunrise presented itself the next morning. Ever so slowly, the Minarets blushed red with alpenglow, as if embarrassed by the realization that they would soon present their naked selves to the world, bereft of the modesty of a cloud cover. The red glow intensified, and soon became the Sierra gold of direct sunlight, far more valuable than the coveted metal that brought forty-niners to California by the thousands. Had the streambeds transformed into a blanket of gold ingots, they surely wouldn’t have glowed as they did in the reflected morning light.

Thirty-three years ago, my much younger but more heavily laden self had traveled, over the course of four days, the Rush Creek trail from the June Lake Loop, spending nights at Spooky Meadow, Garnet Lake, and Minaret Lake. This was the beginning of a love affair with the Eastern Sierra that has only grown through the years, necessitating at least one, and hopefully more, pilgrimages each year. During the third day of that first Sierran trip, my two companions and I had climbed beyond Ediza Lake, negotiated the ice and snow-covered slope of Iceberg Lake using crampons and ice axes, and traversed Cecile Lake for our first view of Minaret Lake just as the clouds decided to hasten us along with a downpour. Unable to find a trail down, we downclimbed the slick rock face, and only afterward marveled at our extreme stupidity for having done so.

That day’s travails were still deeply etched in my memory as we began ascending toward Iceberg Lake, taking our time to save our energy for the latter stages of today’s hike. Ediza Lake grew more and more gorgeous as wispy clouds shaded the morning Sun, transforming the lake to an emerald green that would make emeralds envious. The chain of Minarets that seemed so distance at Ediza Lake now rose directly above Iceberg Lake, the snow fields below each peak clearly the sole source of the lake’s frigid water. A narrow trail continued to the left, skirting the lake on its eastern side, then abruptly came to an end as it was overrun by a field of talus and scree stretching around the lake and up toward the mountain pass that would take us to Cecile Lake.

We had already gained over five hundred feet of elevation, but what lay ahead was the most difficult and harrowing part of the day’s journey. For over an hour, we climbed, slid, bouldered, doubled back, hiked, and finally found ourselves atop a giant boulder six hundred feet above Iceberg Lake, perfectly positioned for a breathtaking view of our accomplishment.

When planning this trip on, I’d had to manually add the Iceberg Lake traverse to the map, as no obvious trail existed there. The same turned out to be true at Cecile lake, where the entire eastern flank of the lake was a jumble of boulders large and small. Bouldering is fun, but not after what we had endured to get here, not with heavy packs threatening to throw us off balance at every step, and not with our granola and strawberries breakfast a distant memory. George found the Cecile Lake traverse the least entertaining portion of our trip, and I wasn’t too far from complete agreement with him.

We’d mistakenly thought the worst behind us, but the downclimb to Minaret Lake had a point to prove. A feeling of deja-vu, punctuated by distant thunder, started us on the trail, a series of extreme, scree-covered switchbacks whose only redeeming quality was the gorgeous views of the lake they provided. And so we descended into an overcast Minaret Lake, thankful that the day’s ordeal was finally at an end. We had managed to cover half the distance as the first day’s hike in about the same amount of time, and were glad to look forward to two nights at Minaret Lake to prepare us for the long trek back to civilization.

Our campsite was nestled in a copse of evergreens on the north side of the lake, a stone’s throw from a shallow pond that mirrored the skies above. The tallest and most prominent of the Minarets, Clyde Minaret, a sharp spire rising skyward to the west, is the dominant feature of this lake, drawing the eye from every corner. As we rested, the Sun slowly sank toward and hid behind the spire, having done little to clear the overcast skies.

One constant of the Eastern Sierra lakes and highlands is the ever-changing weather. It’s rare for clouds to persist for more than several hours, and while they do, they’re assailed by sun and wind, torn apart at the edges, and scattered like down flung out of a ripped comforter. Though the Sun had gracefully bowed out of the evening’s proceedings, it was now free to illuminate the peaks to the north, and to paint the remnants of clouds racing across the sky with one last splash of color. Over the course of an hour, the boulder strewn pond below these peaks transformed from one mind-twisting reflection to another, its glassy surface decorated by blue skies, puffy clouds, and the last light of the day.

The flight of the last clouds from the lake prepared the canvas of the sky for the onrushing night. By the time darkness enveloped our campsite, the path to the lakeshore, providing much needed water and even more refreshing views, was familiar enough to be traveled with a minimum amount of light. After a too-quickly consumed dinner, we rewarded ourselves with a dram each of Hibiki Japanese Harmony whiskey, our only indulgence of the entire trip as the summer heat had argued against carrying wine, and we’d left all the cans of craft beer in our car because of the weight. Night swallowed the sounds of human activity, and we found ourselves alone at the lake shore, with humanity withdrawn to the penumbra of our perception. Perhaps bolstered by the whiskey coursing through me, one sad thought braved itself to my consciousness… As incredible as the view was, I would miss it dearly within minutes of ending our trip, regardless of how thirstily I drank in my surroundings.

From our vantage point, Michael Minaret, its rounded shape guarding the southern flank of the lake, rose between Jupiter and Saturn on one side and the Milky Way on the other. No sooner had I begun to photograph, waiting till just after the end of astronomical twilight, that clouds began to encroach on the Milky Way, and soon engulfed the brilliant Jupiter for good measure. We finished the whiskey and opted for an early night, as the long days and early sunrises had begun to catch up to us.

For the second morning in a row, we woke to cloudless skies, stifling our disappointment as we nevertheless walked to the lakeshore to witness first light on the Minarets. As the sky filled with the refracted promise of sunrise, clouds appeared downvalley, taunting us with their remoteness. But the wind was with us this morning, and before the vermillion of alpenglow had set the spear of Clyde Minaret aflame, a burst of puffy clouds filled the sky. It was one of the best sunrises I’ve witnessed in the Sierra, a magical blend of golden crags, dazzling white snow, clouds in every shade of gray, and a lake of the deepest green streaked with the whites, grays, and golds reflected within.

With the inevitable harshening of the light came time for coffee and breakfast. Much less publicized than the run on toilet paper and paper towels, but as significant for us as any, was the near disappearance of freeze-dried food during the pandemic. Limited supplies meant that we had to purchase what we could find, and as those experienced in backcountry cuisine can attest, the misses were much more spectacular than the hits. Our dinners, fortified by herbs and spices I never forget to pack, had been good, but our first breakfast of granola wasn’t as crunchy as we’d liked. Today’s breakfast was, to be kind, awful… Scrambled eggs and bacon sounded like a good breakfast on the least demanding day of the trip, but the texture of the eggs and the paucity of bacon meant that we were already looking forward to lunch. After breakfast, we decided to move our camp to the eastern side of the lake to reduce the already long hike on our last day. I remembered the perfect spot from two previous trips to Minaret Lake, and we found the campsite unoccupied, but coveted by many in the hours after we’d settled in. Three or four pines, growing in a tight circle, provided a cave-like shady spot along an otherwise exposed and rocky shoreline.

We spent the day watching clouds soar by, marveling at the myriad shades and hues the lake took upon itself, and shared stories with a group of hikers who were also interested in photography. In the late afternoon, clouds gathered between us and Mammoth Village, sending down tendrils of rain that never reached the ground. The strong wind blowing downvalley kept the clouds at bay, giving us relatively clear skies throughout the afternoon. Using the scant cellular coverage, the first during our trip, we could not resist finding out that the clouds with tendrils are officially called jellyfish clouds, a phenomenon caused by the presence of a warm layer of air below the cloud that evaporates the rain, preventing raindrops from reaching the ground. A rainbow in the distance attested to the presence of raindrops in the air, but not a single one would find its way to our lakeside camp.

The evening schedule mirrored that of the previous nights. We ate dinner before sunset, watched the last glow disappear from what clouds remained around us, and settled in to wait for nightfall. Arcturus, the bright red giant in the constellation Boötes, rose directly above Clyde Minaret. To its right, toward the northwest, the Big Dipper was an easy mark. The Milky Way rose behind us, completing its arc through Cygnus and Cassiopeia before disappearing behind the Minarets. This would be our last chance to quench our thirst for a starry sky, to stare at the Great Rift slashing through the core of the Milky Way, to see the barely visible pink glow of the Lagoon Nebula, and to watch the last of the Perseid meteors sacrifice themselves for a moment of brilliance soon forgotten. We bid the night sky farewell, and began our mental preparation for tomorrow’s trek home.

George already knows that the only question that matters once our morning alarm goes off is whether there are clouds in the sky to greet the rising Sun. For the second day in a row, my answer began with a downtrodden no, that soon became a “hang on,” and was shortly followed by every exclamation of awe I could muster as wispy tendrils of white magic flew above the Minarets like flags torn from their masts by the wind. Following a very quick breakfast, and having had our coffee while waiting for sunrise, we broke camp and headed downvalley. A long day, much longer than we anticipated, lay ahead. In planning our trip, we’d estimated that slightly more than half of the mileage of the entire trip would be on the last day, as we had to end up back in Agnew Meadows instead of the traditional end of the Minaret Lake hike at the Devils Postpile ranger station.

After a relatively easy six miles or so, all downhill, we found ourselves at the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Any trace of clouds had disappeared, and we began the uphill trudge that would eventually parallel the middle fork of the San Joaquin river, providing several draughts of much-needed water, in the heat of the noontime sun. One last curveball, one that I’d anticipated but was not looking forward to, were the series of steep switchbacks, with four hundred feet of elevation gain on the thirteenth mile of our day’s trek. Soon after we had passed Minaret Falls, a train of sightseers on horseback, searching for the falls, crossed our path. Thirty minutes later, one rider, who was obviously annoyed at the slow pace of the train she’d been a part of, came galloping back, intent on reaching the stables well ahead of her party. Just as we were cursing the addition of horse manure and its bouquet to our day’s experience, she came back to ask for directions, and to provide the only moment of levity for the day. Apparently, she felt lost as, according to her, there wasn’t “a trail of horseshit” she could follow back. Finally, six and a half hours and nearly thirteen miles after we’d left our campsite, we were back at our car, with empty stomachs and three hundred miles of road separating us from home.

Mosquito bites fade, cuts, scratches, and bruises heal, and the heavy load of the backpack is soon forgotten, but even a brief glimpse of Jupiter, the singsong voice of a bird, or the sound of rushing water will instantly transport me to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, to each of the wonders we witnessed, to the cascades that rushed by, the sunrises and sunsets we witnessed, and to the incredible serenity of four days spent away from the cares of a pandemic-stricken world.

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