Memorial Day Weekend
Bench Lake: 2,362m
Arrow Peak: 3,950m
After Taboose Pass we strode on to Bench Lake, our destination for the first night. Unfortunately, we made a silly error and followed a footpad heading slightly north-west, thinking it would cut back across to the lake. We were wrong, and once in the pines continued down only to stop at the Kings River, merrily oblivious and distracted by the landscape around us. However the river was a slap in the face, so back we came, to the last point we knew with Taboose Pass in view. We had made beginner errors. Instead of following a map we’d followed a trail. Turns out it’s what people take from the pass if they want to head north on the John Muir Trail.
|Finding our way toward Bench Lake|
Even when we were back on track (unfortunately not literally yet!) the huge patches of snow across the valley made it difficult to determine where the actual trail may be. We were going to have to cross country with a map and compass. I became slightly emotional, my tiredness letting the frustration of our time wasting get the better of me.
Luckily my husband Dikko soon found an old footprint and I had a smile back on my face. The walk from there was surreal, dusk crept upon us and the valley and the snow patches became slightly firmer. Trickling meltwater glinted with the remaining light and the air was crisp and still. Not long after our backtracking we reached an intersection we’d been expecting earlier in the afternoon – where the John Muir Trail crosses the trail from Taboose Pass to Bench Lake. There was no ranger tent or sign of anyone, except us.
From there the going was flat and the creek crossings were straightforward in Crocs. The below average snow of the season was making our lives easier. I insisted on making noises for bears, still wary of being an ‘Aussie attacked!’ news headline if I accidentally spooked one. Alas, the only animals who joined us were hoards of talkative frogs toward the lake. We set up for dinner and ate quickly. I also hurriedly changed to thermal pants and my downjacket as the temperature was dropping in preparation for a -2 Celsius low. We walked on and found a flat area and what looked like the remnants of a previous camp. Time for sleep weary leggies, you deserve it!
Sunday morning and I embraced my cup of tea with delight. Things were still a little icy but the sun was rising nicely through the pines and soon we were on our way. We contoured around the ridge from the nameless peak opposite the lake and hit an expected creek. I went downstream and Dikko went upstream, looking for a safe spot to cross. He struck gold – a crossing with dry rocks! I couldn’t believe it as I’d expected this particular creek would be the toughest to cross. We hopped over the grey boulders and were soon at the edge of another lake, of sorts. It was more like an aesthetic swamp; snowmelt had flowed to a low point in a large meadow forming the lake larger than usual. This meant our planned route up and around Mini Arrow was blocked off by water – it was lapping the rock. We decided to head up right early and see how it looked.
From a rocky outcrop with pines I suggested staying to the right of a large snowfield and crossing talus and boulders toward the top. My husband suggested checking out the next ridge over. I convinced him my route didn’t look so bad and deep down I just wanted to go up instead of across. Trudging our way up it still didn’t look so bad. Then I had to cross over the rocks above the snow that I’d pointed out as our traverse point. They were loose and just the right size to snap an ankle. I scrambled and scraped my way across and found my husband waiting patiently on larger boulders.
|We traversed across from here, staying on rock to the little pass|
|My suggestion we took to gain the pass at the back of Mini Arrow
(Mini Arrow is the peak on right of this photo, photo taken on way back)
Recognising where we were I led the way over a little pass of sorts, keeping on rock to the back of Mini Arrow where we saw our options for Arrow Peak. It was easy going to the mid point between the two peaks, which was heavily corniced and made for a good conversation of dares we’d never do. By this time it was getting later. Before the trip we’d made the judgment to take crampons to pop onto our hiking shoes but no axes. This meant snow at this time of day was a no go for us and that meant we’d wasted a lot of time on loose rock.
|Just happy to be there – Arrow Peak in the background
(you can see the remaining snow)
|View down to Bench Lake and, in the distance
(to the right of the photo) Taboose Pass
We had a quandary when we realised how much time we’d wasted. My husband was a bit fuzzy from the altitude. We decided to eat more and weighed our options. The best route up Arrow was covered in patches of snow. Same old conundrum, the slope wasn’t too steep however without our boots and axes things just didn’t seem as secure. I also wasn’t in a frame of mind for winding around on dodgy rocks to avoid the snow. Recalling a conversation from the previous evening, we committed to return to Bench Lake by a decent time so Dikko could take a dip. Decision made!
We turned back and Dikko scrambled up to the top of Mini Arrow while I stayed low to take some photos for scale. At the pass we took Dikko’s suggestion down which turned out a lot easier than the way we’d come up and, with a few short snow plods between rocks, we were back near the orange and blue lake of the meadow.
|Strain your eyes and you can see Dikko
on the top of Mini Arrow (3,633m)
|Not sure where these faint footprints in the snow
were going but they turned around (photo taken on way down)
|We walked around the orange/blue water in this photo|
We enjoyed sunshine on a rock with lunch and dropped further to wander across soft grass underfoot around the lake. I investigated and marveled in plants and features that took my fancy, enjoying the time I had by giving up the summit. In some parts of this area there appears to be a footpad, and rocks upon boulders as minimalist cairns, however we found it better to follow the map. Lesson learned the day before!
Back at camp our tent was intact and our bear canister where we left it. Paranoid Australians! We lazed in the sun on our mats and sleeping bags, rehydrating and snacking before Dikko committed to his swim and ventured bravely toward the lake! I followed, with a down jacket and beanie, fresh socks and anything else I thought may be useful after a dip in a recently unfrozen lake! I have never seen him make the facial expressions he made in those next few minutes! Standing on the bank he aimed to swim toward an island however, submerged and a few more seconds later, that plan was quickly dismissed!
I suddenly felt the urge to try it myself, if an ice bath was good for athletes it was good for me! We swapped care roles and I gingerly stepped into the water. Instead of facial expressions, I yelped as the rocks underfoot were slippery with algae and I nearly fell in! I didn’t want to get my hair wet as it would never dry with a -3 degree forecast! Gaining my footing I gave myself a bird bath and figured that would do!
The dusk was magic. We sat in our sleeping bags and cooked dinner, enjoying the simplicity of preparation, sipping tea and watching the colours of the mountains change with the arrival of stars. I was in a happy place, with a belly full of cous-cous, tuna, smoked gouda and almonds.
|Cosy dinner cooking!|
Soon it didn’t matter I hadn’t climbed to the top of Mount Arrow. Instead I realised I’d used the time to make the most of our one day in the area, and seen things I wouldn’t have seen in much greater detail. Flowers and pinecones, luscious green plants, decomposing giant pines and bird calls. I wouldn’t have experienced a bone chilling bird bath or sat picking imaginary sport climbs on the nameless peak. I was also glad to conserve some energy, not just for the walk out via Taboose Pass but the drive back to Los Angeles straight after that. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
When it came, I didn’t want to leave. The lake and the mountains were so beautiful it put a lump in the throat and tears in the eyes. We both took time to make the most of its morning peace, reflections and friendly fish.
|There were many of these fish in Bench Lake, super friendly fellows|
Bench Lake in the morning – stunning
Most climbers or hikers might think a summit makes a fairytale, but in this place, just being there was unreal. We made some mistakes however I now don’t see them as such, they were lessons for our first proper trip into the Eastern Sierra. We will only use what we learned for future adventures. Plus, the memories I have of those pure moments, sitting still and serene in that special landscape, gives this story the best happy ending.
|Arrow Peak above Bench Lake (photo by Dikko on his iPhone)|