Big Pine South Fork Hike
20/21 September 2014
Distances: Big Pine Creek Campground to Brainerd Lake: 5.5km (3.4 miles)
Elevation gain: About 1,000m from campground to unnamed, heart-shaped lake east of Finger Lake.
Map reference: Tom Harrison Map – Kings Canyon High Country.
With a dodgy shoulder and a stormy forecast actually climbing Middle Palisade was out of the question. So I refocussed our Big Pine South Fork permit with bivouac (bivvy) practice. This is when you sleep in a small waterproof sack that covers your sleeping bag, a bit like a swag in Australia, just not as luxurious and much, much lighter.
Friday night we camped at Alabama Hills, just outside Lone Pine, on Bureau of Land Management property. With an overnight low only forecast to 65 Farenheit (18 Celsius) we left the fly off the tent and enjoyed a superb view of the Milky Way. I saw four shooting stars before closing my eyes, including two in the sky at once. Lucky!
At the Eastern Sierra Interagency Centre we survived the crowds seeking lotteries to hike or climb Mount Whitney (California’s highest peak). Collecting our reserved permit we drove toward Big Pine Creek Campground.
In the hiker carpark we packed our bags and started walking up the road to the campground, where a friendly local stopped us to chat about trout. Strolling on we passed adorable cabins and crossed the creek before an intersection for the trail proper.
Proud with my feet dry after two creek crossings, we wandered past a John Muir Wilderness sign. As I’d not researched anything since planning for our first Middle Palisade attempt back in July, I had no ideas where the trail went, and it seemed invisible.
In the end, it was pretty obvious, snaking up switchbacks and rounding boulders and gnarly pines to lead us to a view above Willow Lakes. The view was of the Palisades, a stunning alpine kingdom of some of California’s highest mountains. It was so beautiful and interesting I had trouble averting my eyes to make lunch.
From our lunch spot the hike to Brainerd Lake, marked with red dots on the map, was well trodden and easy to follow. Dikko sidetracked to check out a roaring creek and I followed for a peek. From there I plodded slowly, the altitude starting to thump in my head. It’d been nearly two months since we’d been in the high mountains and my head was making sure I knew it.
Passing a stagnant pond I continued up to Brainerd Lake, where I popped out just near a tent clearing, close to the water and sheltered under pines. Expecting Dikko to join me at any moment I walked a little further on. After about five minutes I started to wonder where he was. I called out, no reply.
Twenty minutes later it turned out we’d taken different trails (both apparent) and, when I hadn’t caught up to him, he walked back down the trail, just as I had disappeared around a granite block. Talk about ships in the night!
After agreeing our actions if that ever happened again, we decided a bivvy site, and the first one I’d seen was the best. Dikko set about preparing for a walk up to Finger Lake at 3,438m. My head was thumping but I didn’t feel it was bad enough to justify ibroprofen. I agreed to join my husband as the walk in to Brainerd Lake hadn’t taken too long, and I really wanted to see the access to Middle Palisade.
We headed south around Brainerd Lake, following a chute that we agreed could take us diagonally across, and hopefully following some contours, we’d round out near Finger Lake. Looking at the map might be a good idea next time, but that’s the beauty of no plans – you can explore to your heart’s content.
Unfortunately the chute, a dried creek and bunch of moraine-type rocks, was more interested in taking us to The Thumb. While I didn’t mind this side trip to the unnamed lake, my head was thumping worse and I was getting tired. I followed Dikko up a granite slab and realised how tired I was. I decided to turn around as the clouds gathered above us while Dikko continued on to see Finger Lake from above.
Back at camp it drizzled while I set up and collected water from an outlet. Brainerd Lake was full of algae, and Dikko suggested it may be better to fill water where it’d been oxygenated. I swirled a SteriPen in my Camelbak and it gave me a sad face and a battery sad face. Annoyed, as I’d only replaced the batteries two months ago, we decided to boil water for drinking.
Out of the corner of my eye I started to see flashes. Thunderstorms were forecast for around Mount Whitney, roughly 60 miles (100 kms away), but being the mountains, anything can happen. And it did. We scoffed our couscous, tuna and cheese and buried into our bivvy bags just as huge raindrops fell.
Sheet lightning consistently discoed in the clouds, and while I was relieved it wasn’t fork lightning and touching the ground, it was still unnerving. The thunder sounded far away, about 15km at one point I calculated, and the rain eased.
Then the thunder changed, from low, rolling faraway to crackling in a metal drainpipe above. I’d never heard it like that before! Relieved we weren’t camping exposed in a tent with metal poles we knew lightning strikes still struck trees, but we were in a comparatively low spot, and there was no outrunning a thunderstorm.
Around 10pm the storm subsided, leaving enough drizzle it was uncomfortable with your face outside the bivvy bag. My Black Diamond bag had wire in it so I made a little verandah, while Dikko’s decades-old Paddy Pallin bag struggled in the wet.
Somehow we both slept that night. I felt almost pure sleeping against the earth, with minimal cover between me and the weather. Dikko had tried to wake me up at one point as he heard a coyote, but I was deep in REM sleep – dreaming of Apple keyboards that were made of green and brown circles. You heard it here first.
Awoken by birds that sounded offensively like alarm clocks ‘ERR ERR ERRing’, I peered out as the sun struggled to light up high peaks. The clouds won out and then descended to block any view. The wind picked up, it rained again, and at one stage it even snowed! It was great to snuggle down in my bivvy and be totally comfortable and dry.
An hour later the sky cleared above Middle Palisade and we cleared from our bivvy bags to prepare breakfast, after a walk to see the dusting of snow across the peaks. It was a beautiful morning, made even more so by the realisation the snow cover would be so fleeting. When we walked out later that morning, the snow was all gone.
Dikko and I discussed walking up to Finger Lake the right way, but I preferred to relax around Brainerd Lake and stroll out with plenty of time to drive back to Los Angeles. We were both happy with the decision, as it was Dikko’s heads’ turn to ache.
On the walk out somehow I managed to spot a Sierra Treefrog on the trail! It was so tiny and camouflaged I still have no idea how I saw it, but I’m glad I did! I’d estimate this one was only a few centimetres long, I’d never seen such a tiny froggy.
We stopped again at the view above Willow Lakes and sat on sunny granite. Lining up peaks with our map, dreaming up routes and access and adventures without a guidebook or the internet.
On the walk down we met a number of hikers who were all chatty, and everyone mentioned the thunderstorm the night before! They’d all watched it from the campground or the township of Big Pine so it’d been impressive show all round.
Our walk out was nothing but pleasant with the storm’s rainfall providing a freshness and moisture to to the air. Back at the campground we powered along the road, the smell of horse manure wafting up amongst the pine needles. At the pack yard there were horses and a farrier shoeing a patient grey. I embarrassingly asked him if I could take a photo for my Mum.
After a hiatus it was great to be back in the mountains. The experience of bivvying in a thunderstorm and the feeling of being alive and responsible were invigorating and inspiring. The shooting stars, creeks, tiny frogs, alpine views, lakes, rocky spires, and the great company with my husband made for an exceptionally memorable weekend.