Thunder and Lightning
by Malcolm Macdonald, August 17, 2016
We're at the Denny's in Bishop by 5:05 a.m. To beat the heat. It has been 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more in Bishop for days. A surprising number of other Denny's patrons have made the same decision.
Nick says they are mostly fishermen. Who knows? Nick's got a summer cold and the evening before he'd skipped the usual handshake greeting for a remote shoulder bump/hug outside the Elms Motel.
Eggs, bacon, hash browns, and a glass of milk to fortify each of us, then we are on our way. We leave E.B.'s Honda in an inconspicuous part of the huge Von's parking lot, where, the previous night, we bought last minute additions of food for our backpacks. My car's already stashed on the outskirts of the Mammoth Mountain Resort, our hoped for exit point after ninety miles and twelve days of backpacking.
Nick's SUV takes us west out of the dawning light of Bishop, twenty-two miles west, and up to our trailhead beside South Lake at an elevation of over 9,000 feet.
The six mile climb from South Lake to Bishop Pass is broken by a stretch of flat hiking past Long Lake, though in our morning ascent the mosquitoes by that lake keep us from any prolonged breaks. The rest of the way is an arduous, switch-backing slog over granite to Bishop Pass (just over 12,000 ft.).
While we're collapsed at the top of the pass, at the noon hour, two lean women in their early twenties reach the same Bishop Pass summit practically perspiration free and genuinely gleeful about their resupply jaunt from the John Muir Trail (JMT) at Le Conte Canyon (more than three thousand feet below) up and over the pass, down to South Lake, then Bishop, and back again – all in a day and a half. Before we regain the energy to shoulder our backpacks again, they are gone like a light breeze. We learn later that they are not only through hiking the JMT, but also the Pacific Crest Trail in 25-30 mile chunks per day when they are not slowed down by resupply efforts. Such long distance hikers often acquire trail names. The pair are simply known as “The Beast.”
We are not planning to pack all the way down to Le Conte Canyon and the JMT that day, but rather down just far enough through Dusy Basin to overlook the canyon. I set out ahead of Nick and E.B. to capture the best campsite at the lowest reaches of Dusy Basin.
Almost all this downward stroll is wide open to the afternoon sun, though the farther I march clouds tumble in to shade any and all wearying backpackers. When I reach the last possible overhanging spot for camping, in the three o'clock hour, the splatter of rain and the roll of thunder approaching inspire me to new speed records of pole arcing, rain fly tossing, and tightening. I'm inside my “two person” tent with only a modicum of dampness for accompaniment. Full backpack alongside, I tug out my air mattress and sleeping bag while lightning flashes bright and close enough to be seen oh so clearly through the orange REI tent and rain fly.
Between the booms of thunder and lightning the sounds of Nick and E.B. setting up their larger tent trickle through the storm. The typical Sierra rain or hail lasts a few minutes, maybe a half hour or so. This puppy went on for about two and a half hours with just the tiniest of let ups for a minute or so interspersed each hour.
Fortunately, both tents survived with only small amounts of rainwater puddling inside. However, by the following morning it was apparent that Nick had paid more attention to the cold settling into his lungs than he had the silver dollar-sized blisters splotching his feet. One day in and it was time for a decision, continue on or turn back.
“The decision” in a later edition.
(The author's website: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)