It’s strange how at-home one can feel on a giant slab of granite. Lake Aloha’s shoreline closely resembles the face of Mars, puckered with crushed rock and a shallow lake filled with tiny desert islands. I never thought I could think something so barren was so beautiful, but the quiet, harsh landscape of Desolation Wilderness’ Crystal Range redefines natural beauty. She’s striking, and when the sun sets upon the peaks, the solitude and remoteness of where you are starts seeping into your bones. The wind howls and threatens to blow your silly little tent away and you start to wonder how you came upon this rocky shore, surrounded by jagged mountains, circling you, half protecting you from the vast wilderness beyond and half looming over you like cranky giants waiting to humble you and any thought you had about how tough you might be. And somehow, this is beginning to feel like home.
Last year, I visited Desolation twice and completely fell in love with her cold shoulders and exposed lines, and rocky face. There were times when I felt my boundaries were pushed so outside my comfort zone that I had no choice than to adapt, to delve further into the wilderness, and eventually embrace the adventure around me. I couldn’t imagine my first two trips any other way. The last time in particular, exposed all my vulnerabilities but left me wanting more. I wanted to feel the contrast of the burning sun and the icy gusts that would come off the snow covered mountainsides. I wanted to look down below my feet and feel my stomach drop with the thought that I was hundreds of feet from the next ledge. I wanted to use my body, my muscles, my skills again to climb higher and see from these great heights the tiny starting points of the journey, to see how far I’ve come. Literally. Figuratively. So I started planning my return to these rocks.
With race plans put on hold until fall, I found myself happy and healthy and with a little bit of time on my hands. Perfect conditions for adventuring! When I learned that Chris hadn’t been to Yosemite or Desolation, I decided that we were motivated enough to make an impromptu three day weekend tour of a few of my favorite places.
We started off in Yosemite and did a nice mellow run through Lyell Canyon before camping with friends in Tuolome Meadows. We drove through the park, getting fleeting glimpses of the iconic formations from a million vistas on Tioga Road. It was a brief trip, but hopefully just enough to make you want to come back over and over again. One of the highlights of my trip, aside from the company and amazing camp side dinner prepared for us by our friends was seeing Tenaya Canyon from the overlook. It reminded me that about a year ago, I told myself that one day I wanted to attempt the infamous and dangerous Tenaya Descent. I read this article about a father and son who had a near death experience during their attempt a few years ago and a quote really stuck with me–something about how things on your bucket list should be things you want to do before you die, not necessarily things that can easily kill you. But a quick glance over mine pretty much represent the latter. Oops. Tenaya is a gnarly descent through the canyon, streams that can drown you, rocks that can fall on you, boulders that you can slip down hundreds of feet to your death. Only the most capable teams can do it all in daylight, so for most, it also includes toting supplies for overnight survival or at least getting through the trip after dark. So many accidents happen in the canyon, a disproportionate amount of deaths and many believe in the curse that Chief Tenaya placed on the canyon long ago. Looking at the canyon from Tioga, it’s so vast, so beautiful, so brutal. Paulo Coehlo at one point wrote something like that we all have one foot in a fairy tale and one foot in the abyss. It’s most evident when I’m standing, looking down into the oblivion and thinking, I would like to be there.
It’s how I feel when I spend time in Desolation. Feeling the environment dwarf me over and over again is addicting. So after Yosemite, we headed into the wilderness. Our first day there was spent grabbing our permits, repacking our bags and trying our best to keep our carry weight down. It was probably the least amount of food I have ever brought with me backpacking, mostly because every time I go, I always think, why am I carrying half this stuff back with me, unused. So I went bare bones and used nearly everything I packed. We even left the emergency bivvy in the car, promising each other we wouldn’t need it.
Weather was perfect, a tad on the warm side and the sun beat down on us as we started up the hard climb up the shoulder of Ralston. It’s always a much longer climb than it looks on the map, and difficult. The last time I was up here, the trails were difficult to follow once you encountered snow and water flowing down from the summit, but this time, it was bone dry and the trails were clear as day. We made quick work down to Lake of the Woods and up a brutal kicker up to the PCT and Lake Aloha. We found a great campsite towards the top end of the Lake. The lake level was so low right now that you could almost feel like you could reach out and touch the islands that dot the water, giving it it’s distinctive character. Chris and I decided together that heading up to the Crystal Range the next day was probably more than we could bite off in one day if we wanted to hike our packs out and be back at the car before dark. I felt confident in my navigation skills to make it up to Price and follow the ridge over to the others in the range, but I had no idea whether the complete lack of snow would make it harder or easier, faster or slower, so we opted for a more certain option heading up Tallac. Tallac has a definite trail that leads to the summit and is very difficult to get lost, so we decided to wake up with the sun and enjoy some Tahoe vistas instead.
The next day, heading up Tallac was difficult but not too taxing, and it was beautiful, and the right call given what we had to look forward to later in the day. The hike back our from Aloha to Ralston with our packs felt hard. The weight, altitude, heat and hunger were starting to add up. My pack started to feel impossibly heavy, even though it was much lighter than most I’ve carried on multi-day trips. Luckily we made great time up the shoulder again and paused at the top to take in the view. From the side of Ralston, you can see the entire Crystal Range, Lake Aloha and the entire path you took here laid out in front of you. The unobstructed vista was one I have seen before, but each time you see it, experience it, it feels the same but different in some way. Not just the view, which obviously was different without snow at your feet or on the mountaintops, but in the air and in your heart, each time you look out you feel the comfort of being there before but the excitement of seeing it again for the first time. I will never get tired of experiencing that feeling.
A big part of me wished I had challenged myself more on the trip, since you don’t get that many opportunities to spend this much time out in nature. It feels almost wasted to have your trip be so mundane. But then you think about it more and realize, not only was it one of the most enjoyable trips out to the mountains, but with each visit, it feels more and more like home. Soon, the hard stuff will feel second nature. The barren landscape is already starting to feel more like a fairy tale and less like the abyss, but I welcome a time when I can look over the edge into the oblivion and feel that I could only fly, not fall, succeed, not fail. I’m getting there. Maybe I’m there already.