A Dark and Stormy Night

Ridge above Wet Meadow to Bullion Flat and back
(15 miles, +3,300/-3,300 feet).

Last night was the craziest weather I have ever experienced in a tent.  The storm started out with wind and drizzle but it soon stepped up its game, adding lightning and thunder to the mix.  MixMaster and I yelled out to each other, discussing the lightning risk as I counted seconds between flashes and booms.

I don’t think there was ever a strike closer than about a mile away, but since we were on a ridge I was a little worried anyway.  Our camp was in the middle of a moderately dense forest, which is a good place to be during a storm since it gives protection from the wind and spreads out the risk of lightning striking a tall tree nearby.  So we decided to stay put.

The lightning stopped but then it POURED.  It was soothing, but also a little nerve-wracking, so I drifted in and out of sleep.  We may have gotten as much as an inch of rain before it slowly turned to freezing rain and then snow.  At one point I woke up and found my tent extremely dark.  It also seemed like it had shrunk.  I soon realized that about 2 inches of slushy wintry mix was clinging to the tent walls.  Once I shook the walls, the snow slid off and the tent sprang back to its larger footprint.  I dozed off again.

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The morning after

MixMaster and I actually slept in a little (all the way until 7am!) to wait out the precipitation a bit.  We weren’t really sure what kind of trail conditions we would find, so we decided to bring all our stuff with us, even though we were planning to possibly come back this way.  We skipped breakfast and hit the trail right away, hoping that a drop in altitude might help us find conditions that were a little more favorable for a respite.

The scenery was spectacular, but the trail had become a slushy river.  I tried to avoid stepping in it, but after about 15 minutes I just gave up and sloshed in soaking shoes and socks for the rest of the day.

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A slushy trail in a winter wonderland
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Wintry blowdown

As we dropped below 9,000 feet the snow changed to rain, the rain lessened to a sprinkle, and we found a nice spot to enjoy our postponed morning routine.

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Nature’s rest stop

After breakfast we continued down along a traverse to about 8,400 feet where we started ascending again, heading towards Farewell Gap.

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We lost the snow
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Groovy clouds above the forest and the manzanita
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Cascades of the Little Kern River

We eventually crossed the Little Kern River and decided that we would do a there and back to the base of Farewell Gap instead of trying to make it beyond to Franklin Lakes.  The Gap is 1,000 feet higher than where we camped last night, so we expected it to be covered in snow.

If I knew that we would have good weather the next two days, I would give it a try — we brought micro spikes and trekking poles — but the combination of uncertainty about travel time in snow and uncertainty about the weather itself meant that we would probably be pushing our luck too far.

I was sad to change our itinerary, but the upside was that we could stash a lot of our stuff in a nice little campsite and slack pack up to the Gap and back.

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Gee this pack feels a lot lighter!

The hike up to the Gap was icy windy with occasional sleet, but the autumn-to-winter views were so worth it.

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Autumnal scene in the upper Little Kern
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A gushing spring
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Down valley view

By about 1pm we climbed up to Bullion Flat where we got our first wide open views of Farewell Gap.

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Farewell Gap peeks from behind a blazed tree

I was quite happy to be there.

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JimmyJam likey the Gap
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View of the trail up to Bullfrog Lakes

As we suspected, a lot of the trail up to the gap was covered in a few inches of snow, so our decision to turn back at 10,000 feet was probably a good one.

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MixMaster at Bullion Flat

When we headed back, we unintentionally did a little loop on a higher traverse above the Little Kern valley.  It was a little treacherous, but it did give us a nice view of one of the many waterfalls along the way.

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A little cascade feeding the Little Kern
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MixMaster checks out the view

We got back to our stuff, repacked, and headed back the way we came, hoping to make it back to the ridge above Wet Meadow for this evening.

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MixMaster on a traverse

Wet Meadow was beautiful, but it had the weirdest campsite I have seen in wilderness.  Some horse packers had left behind bags of trash, chairs, fire grates, and big aluminum boxes full of bullet holes (sigh).  The one upside to this jarring scene is that they had left behind a perfectly good and still sealed bottle of beer.  Breaking with my ultralight philosophy, I stowed the beer for dinner a while later!

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Wet Meadow

The climb up from Wet Meadow took us past another horse camp where an old stockade was collapsing.  We were tired and tempted to call it quits here, but it was just too spooky.

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Too spooky, Scoob!

Around 6pm we returned to exactly the same place where we spent last night.  It is convenient because our tent sites are much drier than the surrounding area, and we already know it is a good place to be in case the next storm comes early.  But right now I doubt that will happen.  The air is crisp, the stars are coming out, and it looks like it will be very, very cold tonight.  Good thing we both brought extra sleeping bags!

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