Blundering into Desolation

by Brooke Wright

It’s interesting how going to the wilderness in modern times tests your burliness—but only after it tests your attention to detail.

These days we require certain items once considered luxuries for survival and/or a penalty-free experience, but on a backpacking excursion last summer to the Desolation Wilderness, my partner and I found it alarmingly easy to drop the ball on some critical issues. Things like:

1. Fuel
2. A permit
3. A sense of direction, even with a map (all right, you probably always needed that)
4. A bear hang (back in the day you just shot the bear, I assume?)
5. A map

We start in style, firing up the backpacking stove just a couple miles from the trailhead, where we've had a luxurious sleep in the back of my ’96 Volvo station wagon (wagon + memory foam = deep, peaceful sleep). The stove, however, fails. Thus begins issue No. 1. Despite having lived off his Whisperlite, which could burn diesel fuel or plain old gas, Michael was dismayed to discover a little late in the game that denatured alcohol is not a listed fuel for the otherwise magical lightweight device.

So rather than make the trek back to Placerville in search of white gas, we chose begging. At the first campsite we saw Michael asked for fuel, and to my relief I heard him say, “Well, I guess I’m out of the doghouse now.” Insert sigh of relief and mark issue No. 1 resolved.

Next, try opening the glove box where I’ve cleverly placed our backpackers permit, and which is now stuck closed. Thanks to Michael’s ingenuous use of a screwdriver, we manage to pry it open just enough to snag the permit, without which you can expect a hefty fine and an abrupt ending to your wilderness excursion should a ranger visit you (and from what we’ve heard, they do.) Issue No. 2 also mark resolved.

So all fueled up and packed and ready, we start out on the trail at the crack of dawn—by which I mean around 11am. And by which I mean “the trail” that seemed right at the time.

Road Less Taken
As we later realized, the trails from Wright Lake all head straight up and out of a canyon but up granite ridges segregated by steep gorges that must rush with snowmelt in wetter years. We headed up about 1.5 miles before realizing the junction we sought was long behind us, as we had climbed a little too far east and not far enough north for our secluded, private lake in Desolation Wilderness.

Getting suspicious, we asked passersby, but no one seemed to know much about our secluded, private lake (a very good sign indeed, since despite its name, Desolation is relatively flooded with hikers. Check out the hilarious results of a study on Desolation Wilderness permit holders vs. non-permit holders here (downloads as PDF). It turns out non-permit holders agree there are too many people in the area. In the wise words of Phoebe on Friends, “Oh, hello, kettle? You're black.”)

Seeing smartly dressed hikers just west of our climb, we figured they must be on the right trail. So we went over at a nice access point, back about a mile, and started up that trail. Wrong again. At this point I realized we never once saw a sign indicating we were on the right path, but oddly, I hadn’t taken that as cause for concern.

In short, two wrong navigational choices led to an eight-mile hike that day instead of five—and with a backpack loaded with “bear bait” (a Ziplock full of 50 percent almond butter and 50 percent honey—essential backpacker snack!), canned salmon and about a gallon of trail mix, not to mention the approximately 2,000-foot elevation gain.

Climbing along the “trail” (creek beds and open flats of granite marked with rock piles), we labored onward. By the time we reached Gertrude Lake we were toast. The lake—more of a green pond thanks to a dry winter—left much to be desired and was populated with multiple campers (who didn’t get the memo that camping within 100 feet of a lake is a big no-no in Desolation).

Despite our fatigue, the pursuit of true Desolation kept us motivated to propel ourselves on burning legs up the granite, following rock piles left by kindly hikers before us who knew where they were headed and utilizing our map one last time while sitting next to the pond. This is the point where, we later surmised, the map must have fallen out of Michael’s shallow pocket. Enter issue No. 4.

Cluelessly continuing on, we found the beautiful, secluded lake we sought: Tyler Lake. Like a scene from Lord of The Rings, a lush green lawn hidden in a corner behind the lake provided a welcome place to lay our tent and exhausted bodies. I took my pack off and suddenly felt light as a feather, hopping and flying maybe about as high as a chicken with clipped wings, so not that impressive. But still, it felt great. Too bad that feeling was so temporary. Issue No. 3 (Sense of Direction) mark, with reservation, resolved at last.

Bear Necessities
At this point I announce, none too early, that I have read this is bear country and we need to secure a bear hang. Michael in turn announces he did not know that and did not bring materials for such a thing. Enter issue No. 5. Despite many moons spent in grizzly country up in Montana, Michael found himself rigging a bear hang out of a few tent fly guidelines strung together and an REI Half Dome tent bag, which hung just out of reach if a baby bear were to pass by. Adult bears, on the other hand, would be grateful. Michael just shook his head at his own work. Story continued


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wow, what a beautiful scenery :) Nature is marvelous ;) will help you have more time for travelling ;)