"Why is your pack so much bigger than everyone else's?"
I must have been asked that question a baker's dozen times on the way to McClure Meadow where Camp 1, which had been packed in courtesy of mule muscle by the Bishop Pack Outfitters, awaited, twenty-six miles from our starting point at North Lake. It was the first day, and by far the longest, of a 3-day fastpack trip of the 56-mile Evolution Loop with thirteen folks representing Sage To Summit (S2S), Sierra Mountain Guides (SMG) and CAMP USA. Our goals were simple: to thoroughly test and review shoes from New Balance, Brooks, Inov8 and Hoka One One and clothing and gear designed by CAMP, the 122 years-young company sprung out of the needs of pioneering mountaineers in the Old World (Premana, Italy to be crampon-point precise); to iron out some logistical wrinkles for future, multi-day, guided and supported fastpacking trip offerings by SMG on this iconic High Sierra route; and to have a Sierra-sized helping of fun along the way. That last goal was a given, or at least it would have been under normal circumstances. Mine were far from normal.
Four days earlier I had competed in the Pine To Palm 100 Mile in the Siskiyou Mountains west of Ashland, OR, and, as one might imagine, my legs and feet were fully cooked. I wanted nothing more stimulating than the walk from the beer in the fridge to "The Office" re-runs on the couch. In other words, the usual post-race recovery week modus operandi. However, as I mentioned to Neil Satterfield, co-owner of SMG, on the final day, there was no way I could possibly have passed this trip up. I didn't want to have to live that down. I had the rest of the fall to recover.
And so it was that I found myself physically present at the SMG offices at 5:45am on Friday September 23rd, looking around at the almost non-existent minimalist running packs of my cohorts, realizing quietly to myself that I was indeed, mentally and logistically, underprepared for this Evolution endeavor. The idea behind Day 1 was to experience mountain running at its lightest and fastest, thanks to a heaping pile of gear having already been packed in for us for the remainder of the journey. Problem was that in the 2 weeks leading up to the trip I was so absorbed with preparing for, racing and then recovering to some semblance of normalcy from Pine To Palm that, even when I was packing for the Evolution outing, my mind was elsewhere. This fact didn't go unnoticed.
"Yeah, it looked as though your gear and food were really hastily thrown together," remarked Howie Schwartz, co-owner of SMG, who was in charge of getting the group's gear packed up properly for the mule trip in. Understatement! I was more than a little fuzzy on just what exactly I had sent in with the mules which resulted in several extra pounds of "compensatory" gear and food weight, just in case I had truly blown my trip preparation. By the end of the day I was definitely tired, tired of explaining my pack size and feeling like "that guy," as in the one who obviously didn't carefully read the trip itinerary.
Heading up the Piute Pass trail in the early morning light, I quickly settled into the caboose position, finding it ironic that I simply hoped to survive the trip with my body intact. Afterall, three days to "do the evolution" should have felt luxurious seeing as how I had never done it as anything other than a 14-18 hour single-push outing. By the time we reached Piute Pass where Davey McCoy and Tracy Bahr waited with high tech camera equipment at the ready, I knew it was going to be a very long day.
At the pass we transformed ourselves into models, running back and forth along sections of trail, attempting to look fast and natural, our brightly-colored CAMP gear (the Magic Jacket comes in black AND a flashy pumpkin-orange)providing sharp contrast to the still-green meadows and 360 degrees of granite that define the alpine Sierra. These photo shoots would occur frequently and randomly throughout the trip as the Range of Light lived up to its name on its own schedule.
The long descent off the pass, down through Hutchinson Meadow, still displaying an impressive abundance and variety of wildflowers for late-September, and finally to the bomber bridge crossing Piute Creek just above it's confluence with the South Fork of the San Joaquin River all passed by uneventfully as we separated into groups organically, each one finding its own rhythm and topic of discussion. At the bridge we ate lunch and re-grouped for the push up into Evolution Valley. The weather was pleasantly calm and warm, the perfect invitation for a mid-day nap, which is exactly what the lead group of Jed Porter, Chris Gaggia and Ryan Spaulding did while waiting for the laggards.
At the often anxiety-producing Evolution Creek crossing, now barely knee deep and fully-tamed by fall dryness, we re-convened once more for the final leg past McClure Meadow to our camp at the base of the switch-backing ascent to Evolution Lake. Once again I drifted quickly to the back of the pack, this time for good, as my body in general and my feet in particular quickly lost all desire to keep moving forward. By the time I reached camp I felt like I had been transported back to the final ten miserable miles of the hundred the previous weekend. All I could think about was getting off my feet and going to sleep.
The camp was a beehive of activity with everyone scrambling to change into warmer clothing (the CAMP ED Microjacket, with its 680-fill white goose down and hood was the showcase piece of the evening!), set-up shelters, and get meals cooking (Mountain House freeze-dried to the rescue!) in the remaining few hours of daylight. Not long after dark, with conversations about gear, wilderness ethics and the like still permeating the sounds of backcountry silence, I crawled into my sleeping bag and almost immediately drifted off as a final thought about just how I was going to manage the next day tugged at my consciousness.
Less than an hour later I awoke to a near-continuous flickering of light against my eyelids. My first thought was headlamp beams darting about camp but upon opening my eyes I quickly realized the southwestern horizon was the scene of an impressive light show...lightning! The sky above was littered with stars but what would tomorrow bring? Or tonight? I drifted off again wondering if the waterproofness of my bivy sack would get it's first real test.
I awoke to the sound of pine cones landing around my sleeping zone, a backcountry alarm clock of sorts improvised by my trip mates. It was fully light out and I was the last one up. As I hobbled stiffly around, separating gear out into one pile for the final 2 self-supported fastpacking days and a pile for the packers to haul back out, it was immediately apparent that my feet were in no condition for 15 rocky miles of the John Muir Trail. No blisters or injuries, they simply hurt and screamed to be weight-bearing-free, just as they had for the final 10 at Pine To Palm. I had packed in the Hoka One One Stinson B to wear test and unhesitatingly decided it was now or never for the shoes I had summarily dismissed as akin to strapping a couple of Stay Puft marshmallow bags to your feet.
As we headed up the trail to Evolution Lake I couldn't believe how much better my feet felt. I was no longer hobbling and could run without discomfort. The only difference was the shoes. Although my feet were again tired and a bit sore by the end of the day I absolutely had to give the Hokas credit for taking a day that was bound to be filled with locomotive misery and turning it into an enjoyable backcountry experience in which I could focus on the breath-taking Sierra high country instead of my painfully pressure-sensitive dogs.
Popping out of the tree cover at timberline in the lower Evolution Basin, although it was only mid-morning, we were greeted by a dark mass of clouds already assembled along the Black Divide near Muir Pass heading our direction. By the time we reached Sapphire Lake the clouds had closed in from all directions, drawing a curtain of steel-gray over the surrounding peaks. As the wind intensified and the sky filled with horizontal sleet and snow we stopped to empty our packs of every piece of clothing we could find. Adorned in our CAMP-armor (just about everyone was wearing their Magic Pants and Jacket, ED Microjacket and Windmittens) we soldiered on toward Muir Pass at 12000'. Running along the shoreline of Wanda Lake as rumbles of thunder pierced the sound of the howling wind, my feet could feel nothing of the rocky terrain, encased securely in the thick-bed of ultralight foam making up the Hoka midsole, and despite the rapidly plummenting temps I felt toasty warm.
By the time we reached the pass the storm had already been displaced by warming sunshine but it was to be short-lived. As we ate lunch and took turns getting in front of the camera for video gear reviews the storm clouds rolled back in with heightened intensity and we took shelter in the Muir Pass Hut. Jed spent the entire time entertaining us with his attempts to transform his Mega-Mid shelter into a wearable storm suit. Soon enough the deer antlers were borrowed from the wall and, to the random backpackers that wandered in seeking shelter, it must have appeared as though they had stumbled upon an alpine pagan ceremony. These shenanigans were the result of an hour's worth of hunkering down. One can only speculate what truly prolonged, storm-bound cabin fever would have stirred up.
Fortunately, before behavior could deteriorate further, the skies cleared again, this time for good, and we headed over to a nearby snowfield for a mini-clinic in lightweight crampon(examples: the CAMP XLC 490, the Kahtoola KTS and the Kahtoola Microspikes) and ice-axe usage(example: the CAMP Corsa Axe) with Neil Satterfield. Then, it was the long descent down into LeConte Canyon where we set up camp near Big Pete Meadow. Everyone retired early as the plan was a daybreak start on the trail to get up into Dusy Basin during the best morning light for more photo ops. In keeping with the spirit of testing as much gear as possible I found myself trying to get comfortable on an exceptionally-minimalized 3/4 length sleeping pad. It would work great if you got into the proper position and never shifted; an impossibility, at least for me. I didn't sleep nearly as soundly on this night.
After breaking camp in the dark, we steadily ascended the endless switchbacks out of LeConte Canyon and cruised over the lip of Dusy Basin's western edge past a few fall-color-tinged tarns to a mid-morning breakfast spot with a view of Bishop Pass, Mt. Agassiz and the Palisade Crest. Here we conducted extensive video gear reviews and soaked in the beauty of our surroundings.
At Bishop Pass the group divided. Several folks took the opportunity to summit Mt. Agassiz for the first time, while the rest of us continued on down to the trailhead at South Lake. It was a testament to how tired I was that I couldn't convince myself to head up Agassiz, one of my favorite peaks. It was a beautiful fall day in the Sierra and though I'm sure there was no place else any of us would rather have been, we all had various responsibilities to return to. I suppose the inevitable return to reality is what makes adventures like these in the mountains so memorable.
Thanks to everyone who had a hand in putting the trip together and/or who took part in 3 awesome days on the Evolution Loop...
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